Don't Hate the Airlines

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By Patrick Smith
Saturday, June 14, 2008

For years, the long decline in service standards, coupled with ever-worsening delays, has made airlines easy targets. Lately, as the cost of flying has climbed sharply, anti-airline sentiment has grown white-hot. Desperate for revenue in the face of spiraling fuel bills, carriers have not only raised ticket prices but have also turned to "unbundling" airfares -- a two-pronged strategy that has left fliers feeling doubly victimized.

Unbundling is airline-speak for the parsing of fares into a la carte nuggets -- $10 for a window seat, $15 for the aisle, $6 for a turkey wrap. Depending on the airline, everything from food to blankets is being sold separately. Basic amenities and services we once took for granted are now for sale at a premium. The idea has been around for a while, but three of the nation's largest carriers, American, United and US Airways, have recently taken things to a new extreme, charging a minimum of $15 to check baggage. US Airways even plans to begin charging for water and soda in August. Predictably, the flying public has reacted with indignation.

Luggage fees push the unbundling concept into uncharted, perhaps disastrous, territory. Such policies leave the significant number of fliers who travel with full-size suitcases feeling entrapped. Millions will react by cramming whatever they can into carry-on bags, resulting in longer security lines. With overhead bins already at bursting, the boarding and disembarking process could become more of a hellish scrum than it already is.

But is all the fuss really fair? Nobody enjoys paying more for less, but perhaps it's time to look at all this from a different perspective. Granted, flying in America is nowhere close to the dignified experience it once was, but is it possible that passengers are demanding too much? Are we a bit, well, spoiled? If the latest price hikes seem particularly painful, maybe that's because fares have been markedly underpriced for most of the past decade. Under pressure from low-cost competitors such as JetBlue and Southwest, the majors have been selling passage at wholly unsustainable levels -- often below cost. As late as 2006, the average airline ticket was 15 percent cheaper than it was in 2000, despite a 150 percent rise in fuel costs since that year. Overall, between 2000 and 2008, fares went down approximately 2.4 percent while jet fuel costs soared nearly 200 percent.

Fuel is a carrier's single biggest expenditure -- bigger than labor, bigger than aircraft leases. No airline's pricing structure, as currently constituted, makes sense with oil prices closing in on $150 a barrel. One way or another, flying will cost more. It has to. The howling that results each time carriers announce a fare hike is inevitable, but do the airlines really have a choice?

As for unbundling, it's easy for people to feel nickel-and-dimed, and not every idea -- the baggage fee, for example -- is a good one. But it's a sensible strategy in that it allows those who desire certain extras to purchase them, absorbing a higher share of the burden.

Safety, too, ought to be part of this conversation. For all the anti-airline vitriol, the industry's astonishingly impressive safety record is little acknowledged. Is safety not an aspect of airline customer service? Despite the financial havoc -- tens of billions of dollars in losses and five major carrier bankruptcies over the past eight years -- there has not been a serious accident involving a major U.S. airline since 2001. That's our longest streak since the dawn of the jet age.

In 1950, it cost the equivalent of about $5,000 to fly between New York and Europe. Passengers rode in piston-powered, unpressurized aircraft that were prone to malfunction. Two or more stops were required to span the Atlantic. That air travel has become, on the whole, easy and affordable for the masses is mostly a good thing; regrettably, however, we're losing a sense of perspective.

Patrick Smith is a pilot with a large commercial airline. He writes the "Ask the Pilot" travel column for Salon.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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