Don't let bag fees make you nostalgic. Airlines' golden age wasn't so golden.

(Illustration by Anthony Freda )
By Brett Snyder
Sunday, April 18, 2010

"It costs $25 just to check one bag on American?!"

"My flight was five hours late and they never told us why."

"I hate flying. It's just not fun anymore."

As the author of the Cranky Flier blog, I see comments like these every day. People fully expect their flying experience to be terrible, yet even with low expectations, there never seems to be a shortage of complaints. (Except, surprisingly, when a volcano happens to snarl air traffic.) In the past 10 years, we've seen airlines respond to higher fuel costs and dips in demand with fees for food, bags, seat assignments and more. Now Spirit Airlines says it will charge for carry-on bags, a move that caused such an outcry you'd think the carrier had announced that it would start killing puppies.

Last week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said the carry-on fee "crossed the line of acceptable practices," and he and several other Democratic senators introduced legislation aimed at discouraging it. They're calling their bill the Block Airlines' Gratuitous Fees Act, or the BAG Fees Act.

But what is an "acceptable practice" when it comes to air travel? What about all these other airlines with their various fees? Is Spirit really doing anything wrong? I don't think so.

Americans today want flying to mirror the image in their heads of the glory days of air travel. But that vision is outdated. The industry is making changes not to ruin your life but to survive.

If you think about air travel 50 years ago, you probably envision smartly dressed businessmen reclining in big, comfy seats and enjoying elaborate meals. Meanwhile, attractive young stewardesses fawn over their customers -- the legendary "coffee, tea or me" days. Those days weren't, however, as glamorous as you might imagine.

I have a copy of TWA's flight schedule from June 1, 1959. The first jets were being introduced into the fleet, but the vast majority of flights were still on propeller-driven aircraft. There's an ad in the timetable for TWA's low coast-to-coast "excursion fares." Los Angeles to New York was only $168.40 roundtrip, if you traveled Monday through Thursday in Sky Club Coach class. That bargain is roughly equivalent to $1,225 today, before tax.

These fares weren't valid on the fastest aircraft, so you had only two options, neither of which went nonstop. There was the 10:10 a.m. departure from Los Angeles that arrived in New York at 11:41 p.m. that night or the 7:55 p.m. departure that arrived at 10:56 a.m. the next day -- more than 12 hours in the air. This was on a Lockheed Constellation, which, while beautiful, bounced you around in the weather at about 20,000 feet, far below the 35,000 to 40,000 feet you'd cruise at today. Even when the weather was good, that trademark prop vibration left you feeling like you were sitting on a washing machine for hours after you landed.

So what exactly was so good about the old days? The service was excellent, and the meals in First Class were quite indulgent. But in Sky Club Coach, the timetable noted, "Box lunches must be purchased at airport before departure." As in most cases, memories get better with age. Today, you can fly across the country in less than half the time for less than a quarter of the inflation-adjusted price, and you can watch TV or surf the Web along the way.

A rosy vision of the past sets unrealistic expectations. When deregulation occurred 30 years ago, it brought a major shift for the industry. Suddenly, airlines could fly anywhere they wanted domestically, and they began vying for customers based on price instead of service -- the prettiest stewardesses or the best food. That brutal competition claimed many carriers, including the legendary Pan Am.

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