Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Responding to reports that American Airlines will enact numerous cost-cutting measures that will make flying even less pleasant, including charging $15 for the privilege of checking a suitcase, Kevin Drum wonders where it will all end.

Airlines have spent years trying to bully passengers into reducing their carry-on luggage — with TSA pitching in to help in recent years. Now that they’ve finally broken us (I finally caved in and started checking everything several years ago) they’re going to charge us for checking luggage. Lovely.

I don’t know anything about airline economics and obviously the American Airlines executive team does. Still, the kind of sleazy pricing practices they and the rest of the domestic industry are adopting, where advertised fares mysteriously rise 20% by the time you actually board the plane, seem like exactly the kind of thing designed to wreck their long-term business.

It has been noted for years that international carriers bend over backwards to make flying family-friendly whereas American carriers cater to the business traveler. (Those who’ve flown overseas on KLM or Lufthansa or Virgin will have noted that those flying with babies get the bulkhead seats, complete with snap-in bassinets that allow infants to sleep most of the way.) This is just a continuation of that trend.

Among the less-heralded changes American is making is “weeding out money-losing flights and limiting the number of low-priced seats in coach.” Clearly, the ideal passenger is the business traveler who books at the last minute, thus paying full fare, and travels with only a briefcase and a laptop because he’s flying back that evening, also at full fare. He’ll have his head buried in his paperwork or his eyes glued to the laptop screen the whole flight, perhaps consuming a bag of cheap snacks and a half can of Coke. No checked bags, no screaming kids, no annoying requests for pillows and headphones, etc.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I despise flying despite having done it routinely since I was 6 months old. And it’s getting worse rather than better.

The problem, I think, is that flying has become a commodity. Aside from frequent flier programs and other incentives, most of us book our travel based entirely on cost and scheduling convenience. Carriers that offer better service (larger seats, decent meals, more generous baggage allowances, friendlier waitresses, and so forth) simply can’t pass on the costs in that environment, leading to a race to the bottom. Those who truly want — and can afford — a good experience fly First Class. Otherwise, you’re essentially on a flying Greyhound bus.

Only vaguely apropos to anything above, I found this odd vintage ad whilst Googling for art to illustrate the piece:

American Airlines Think of Her as Your Mother Ad

Not only has airline travel changed rather substantially in the intervening years but so, apparently, has the conception of motherhood. In more ways than one, frankly.

Image: Clayton Barrel

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

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Go ahead.
    Ask me again why I drive everywhere.

  2. Triumph says:

    It has been noted for years that international carriers bend over backwards to make flying family-friendly whereas American carriers cater to the business traveler.

    Actually, the charge-for-everything practice and the catering towards individual consumers has been well-established in Europe for years.

    Try taking Ryan Air or EasyJet the next time you’re over there. Those carriers are basically glorified buses. Tickets are dirt cheap and you have to pay an extra charge for EVERYTHING!

  3. Spoker says:

    Having traveled well over a million miles with various airlines over the past several years I can assure you that very few airlines care about the passengers, their comfort, convenience, time, schedule, or trust. Alas, but what choice do we have but to moo with discontent because there will certainly not be anything to graze on.

  4. steveplunk says:

    My first flight was nearly 30 years ago and it cost me about $350 round trip from Oregon to Boston. It costs just little more today so I find the complaints without merit. We get what we pay for.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Apropos the illustration and the comment about international flights.

    One fact of life that you can count on in comparing the foreign vs US flag carriers on international flights is that the US carriers put the wide bodies on the wide bodies. I suspect that the average age of the stewardess on the international US flag planes is my age or higher while the average age on foreign flag planes is about half my age.

  6. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    I like Continental because they still serve real food. I can’t deal with a JetBlue flight all the way to New York with nothing to eat but a miniature bag of Doritos.

    One thing I would like to see is a plane consisting entirely of first or business class seating. Think of how fast the aircraft would board and alight with only high-paying frequent fliers, and how peaceful the trip would be without kids and babies.

  7. Triumph says:

    One thing I would like to see is a plane consisting entirely of first or business class seating. Think of how fast the aircraft would board and alight with only high-paying frequent fliers, and how peaceful the trip would be without kids and babies.

    The market was not there for Eos, which flew between JFK (I think) and Heathrow. They just went out of business a few weeks ago.

    Silverjet is still around. They fly from Luton to Newark. Unfortunately, Al Gore has conned them into adding a “carbon offset charge” to each flight. But when the flight is 5 grand round trip, a couple of bucks to keep Al Gore happy isn’t going to make much of a difference for most flyers.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    Jeff Baker,

    Do this simple math test. Take a continental flight (which is 3 seats on each side). Removing 1/3 of the seats minimum (no extra leg room) for business class seats would say they would have to increase the cost of the flight by 1/3 to break even. If they removed every third row, to add leg room, another 1/3 cost.

    If the plane has 150 seats now (25 rows of 6 seats), then we end up with about 76 seats to fit in business class. So in rough numbers, you have doubled the price for them to break even. They save a little for weight and needing fewer people who need to buy tickets to fill the plane, so they are probably money ahead if they can fill the plane. But they are now selling the same destination for twice the price as the cattle car. The $350 flight costs $700.

    I agree it would be wonderful, from a flying on other people’s money. But how many who are making the buying decision would pay double?

  9. Dunk says:

    Hey Jeff Baker,
    I truly enjoy taking my young children on flights and always book them business class, just to annoy people like you. It warms my heart to piss off cold people like you. Look for me soon on a DC-London flight; that kid enjoying herself will be mine and if she draws you away from your laptop for one minute — job done.

  10. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Dunk: I don’t ever use my laptop on an airplane. I read books and sleep.

    yetanotherjohn: Round trip on Continental from SFO to EWR is $2100 for business and only $1200 coach. The airline would more than recoup their costs. Anyway, the point is not to make a net change in the number of coach vs. business and first seats, but simply to rearrange them so more of the business seats are on one flight. There are already flights on Emirates that are entirely first class (and first class on Emirates means a 150 sq ft cabin).