Airlines don’t just defy gravity; they also defy business norms. From the way they treat customers to the way ticket prices are determined to the blistering pace of change (the way we fly today is vastly different than even 10 years ago), the industry is shrouded in misunderstandings. As the summer travel season begins, here are five of the most notable.
It stands to reason that a greater supply of seats would help meet demand and lower prices. A 500-seat plane requires just as many pilots, gates, landings, air traffic controllers and dispatchers as a 50-seat plane, so the per-passenger cost should be lower. A 2009 Telegraph story about the first Airbus A380 to hold 850 people said that “low-cost mass transit” of this sort would be “reducing fare prices to passengers.” The New York Times has explained that tickets on smaller planes are more costly because “the higher cost of fuel and other expenses gets split among fewer passengers.”
The difficulty is that economies of scale don’t always work for airlines, because planes generally don’t increase in per-passenger efficiency as they grow larger. In fact, many of the most efficient planes of today are the smallest ones. At a transatlantic distance, a 525-seat Airbus A380 has an efficiency of 74 miles per gallon (mpg) per passenger, while the brand-new 168-seat Boeing 737 MAX 8 reaches 110 mpg per passenger.
Smaller, more efficient planes allow airlines to operate less expensive nonstop routes. Airport fees can account for hundreds of dollars of a long-haul fare, because these flights often operate between the busiest, highest-demand airports. Most travelers living outside the largest cities are forced to connect through bigger, more expensive airports despite having originated at the least expensive airports. This routing drives up their fares. With newer, long-range small planes, however, airlines can operate nonstop long-haul flights from smaller markets. The new Boeing 737 MAX 8, which began flying in May, allows a company such as Norwegian Airlines to fly profitably from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Hartford, Conn., or between Cork, Ireland, and Providence, R.I.
Flying is certainly costly in absolute terms. A round-trip ticket to Europe during midsummer can easily be priced at more than $1,500, nearly 3 percent of the salary of someone considered middle class. Citing pressure from consumer advocacy groups, the Justice Department even began a probe in 2015 into whether U.S. airlines colluded to keep airfares high, an investigation it has since dropped.
But while flying might still be reserved for the middle and upper classes, it’s never been less expensive. In 1979, the average round-trip airfare in the United States was $617 (in 2016 dollars); today it’s down to $367. In 1974, the minimum legal price an airline could charge for a one-way ticket between New York and Los Angeles was $1,442 (in 2017 dollars), while today tickets between the two cities go for as little as $149.
Meanwhile, according to AAA, the average cost to drive per mile in 2016 was 60 cents, while flying typically sets us back between 10 and 15 cents per mile. In a 25 mpg car, driving from Washington to Chicago would cost $66 in gas alone, while airfares are available on the route for as little as $47. Flying might seem expensive when you’re paying $50 to $100 an hour to sit in a 17-inch-wide seat, but for what you’re actually buying — transportation from Point A to Point B — flying is competitive with the car, bus and train, especially on longer routes.
Airplanes are undoubtedly gas guzzlers. An A380 burns a gallon of fuel for every 1.5 seconds in the air. Flying this plane from Dubai to Sydney requires more than 65,000 gallons of fuel — more than the average American uses in his or her lifetime. Jet fuel emits more carbon dioxide per gallon than car fuel, and contrails are believed to have a short-term negative impact on the environment. FiveThirtyEight argued that “every time you fly, you trash the planet,” but its analysis relied on statistics from a company that sells carbon offsets for flights — numbers that assume cars can reach 44 mpg, which is absurd. ThinkProgress went further: A piece that assumed two or three people are riding in every car on long journeys concluded that “flying is not greener than driving.”
What many statistics don’t account for, however, is just how many people airlines can pack into their planes. Lufthansa’s 747-8 seats 364 passengers. On a per-passenger basis, its flight from Frankfurt to Washington requires 65 gallons of fuel — not enough to get an SUV from D.C. to Denver. That plane averages 89 mpg per passenger, far higher than even the most efficient hybrid cars. If you have to choose between driving and flying, the plane is almost always the greener option. And to save money on gas, planes are becoming more energy efficient with each iteration, while carriers work to implement the use of biofuels to further reduce emissions.
Before the turn of the century, the big three U.S. airlines — United, Delta and American — were eight separate carriers. In the past few decades, we’ve seen an intense consolidation of the industry, most recently with the merger of US Airways and American Airlines. The result is an oligopoly. Time magazine has argued that mergers are unquestionably bad for consumers, while the Daily Beast even blamed the recent United Airlines “dragging” incident on this consolidation.
Yet this unfortunate situation is also a result of something positive: aggressive competition. After Southwest, the first low-cost carrier, found success, copycats took note. Virgin America, Allegiant Air, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines were all founded as low-cost carriers since 1990, and others, such as Spirit Airlines, have restructured into a low-cost model. Abroad, Norwegian Airlines, Wow Air and Eurowings have launched cheap trans-Atlantic operations , and AirAsia X will start crossing the Pacific to Honolulu late this month. The traditional U.S. airlines had trouble competing against these price-conscious companies.
The competitive advantage today of the big three U.S. airlines is their route networks, which allow them to serve smaller cities. Delta, for instance, flies to more than 200 airports in the United States — in places like Billings, Mont. The mergers let a traveler in Key West, Fla., fly to Anchorage, Alaska, with just one connection. With prices as low as ever, this ability to traverse the country, from places big and small, surely is not bad for consumers.
If you’ve flown overseas, you’ve seen the maps that show your plane’s route arcing dramatically north or south of the destination. This is actually a direct route in disguise. When a curved image such as a globe is fitted onto a flat plane such as a map, it creates a distortion; the shortest route between two points far north of the equator visually curves north. People explaining this phenomenon often say the plane’s route follows the shortest distance. “Flight-paths such as Berlin-Reykjavik-Boston are reasonably direct,” argued the Economist. As the Independent put it, “The shortest path between two points on the surface of the planet” is what steers a Copenhagen-to-Los Angeles flight “west-north-west, not west-south-west.”
That’s not quite right. What truly determines a flight path is cost: Every minute of additional flight time on a large jet costs an airline hundreds of dollars, so routes generally correspond with the shortest overall flight time, which is not always the shortest distance. Air India’s flight from Delhi to San Francisco used to fly a direct route, taking it north over Russia, above Norway, across Greenland, then down over Canada to its destination. This route clocked in at roughly 8,600 miles. However, wind on Earth flows from west to east, so westbound flights take longer. Last fall, Air India started using a new route for this flight. While adding 900 miles of distance by traveling eastbound across China and the Pacific Ocean rather than westbound, Air India now saves more than $10,000 in fuel and two hours of flight time. Most examples of wind affecting flight paths aren’t nearly as drastic, but every route deviates at least slightly from direct to minimize costs because of wind.