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About Airlines and Air Travel July 15, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As we discuss the world’s best airlines, my blood can’t help but boil. In my formative years (1970-1980s, I suppose), US airlines offered meals, generally polite behavior, and reasonable service. Except when they didn’t; I was certainly delayed often in my early days. I came of age in the 1980s, at the cusp of deregulation.

Guess what airlines also offered in the golden age? High prices and exclusionary practices. The average person in my early life didn’t fly. They either drove, or didn’t go at all. Flying was the provenance of the moderately (or better) wealthy, or the business traveler, and the rest of us made do.

I suppose there were two events that opened up air travel. First, of course, was deregulation, circa the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. The US generally stopped regulating who could start an airline, and when and where they could fly to. At the stroke of a pen (from Jimmy Carter, incidentally), air travel became something any American could do, and several times a year if they desired.  The other was People’s Express airlines, a short-lived experiment at opening up air travel at a low price.

The problem, of course, is that we believed (and oddly still believe) that we deserved Cadillac service on a Chevy budget. Today, flying is cheaper in absolute dollars than it was in the 1970s and 1960s, and grossly cheaper in inflation dollars. My business flight that cost $1000 30 years ago likely cost $500 today, and we still bitch of the price.

About prices. You used to have to pay a great deal to fly. That’s where you got the service. Today, we spend a couple hundred bucks to fly coast to coast, and complain that we aren’t treated like royalty. Sorry, flights are short, relative to what we do at our destination, and I am happy to trade a low fare for getting to a different location quickly. I’ve looked at train travel, and for price, time, and convenience, it doesn’t at all compare. Face it, even in the Northeast Corridor, where we have the most trains, train travel is an incredible time sink, even if I can get to the train station.

About people. I remember when we put on suits and ties to fly. We were out in public, after all, and cared about how we looked. Today we get all manner of dress, with the trend toward being down-market. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (it’s good to be comfortably while flying), but it does speak to the change in demographic and attitude brought about by the change in regulation and frequency.

Of course, sometimes it is much more, often for the same seat, depending on when and how we book. Should all seats be the same price, no matter what? The egalitarian nature in us says yes, but the airline wants to fill all of the seats, all of the time. Is that such a bad thing?

I am not opining that today is better, worse, or indifferent. However, I am very much saying that we have a privilege today that we wouldn’t have had 30 years ago. I would not be a frequent traveler in the 1960s. That privilege has been made more difficult than it perhaps should be, based on the events of 9-11 and others, but it is still very much accessible to all of us.

Those who complain about the cost or service on flying today are simply small-minded (and I don’t say that lightly). We are very much getting what we are paying for. We could pay more for better, except that most of us will instead select a lower cost alternative. And please don’t tell me that Southwest or other airline provides better for less; I’ve priced them, I’ve flown them, and they don’t.

And as we compare US carriers with foreign airlines, let me say simply that others are subsidized, or are monopolies, or have not yet discovered the economic realities of mass air travel. Or don’t practice mass air travel for their populations.

That, I think, is the part that we miss as we pine for an earlier era. In that era, the vast majority of us simply would not have flown. To complain of declining service air today is, well, idiocy, sorry.

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