Why the New Yorker Wants You to Believe Airlines Are Making Coach Worse So They Can Gouge You With Fees

The New Yorker is on a roll bashing airlines, in November it was how bad United was which was really a piece complaining about mergers and a subtle attack on telecommunications mergers.

This week we again we see a New Yorker piece bashing the airlines, another sideways social commentary that’s really about income inequality rather than air transport. (HT: @bhanau)

The piece is called “Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer” and much of it is focused on fees. This is the meat of the argument:

[T]he fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The things airlines are charging fees for aren’t, for the most part:

  • charging more than people used to pay
  • for things that used to be free
  • and that have any relation to inflight comfort vs. misery

Instead, the total cost of airfare inclusive of fees is significantly lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than prior to airline deregulation. And most fees are being charged for conveniences that weren’t ever free, or that have nothing to do with inflight comfort.

The piece wants to make a case about haves versus have nots. And there are political arguments out in the world about this, but using the miracle of human flight to try to score political points is both factually incorrect and misses the point.

Why Airline Fees Have Taken Hold

When airlines were losing billions of dollars, and desperately trying to fill planes at any fare, that wasn’t sustainable.

Airlines have broken apart the product they sell, and starting doing better even with fuel prices high.

  • Part of it is that some of the things they were selling were limited in quantity and materially different as a product — emergency exit row seats are better than most seats in coach, there are only a few on the plane, so it makes sense to charge more for the better product rather than giving away the better product at the same price as everyone else is paying.

  • Another part of it is that instead of raising fares as the economy improved and costs went up, breaking up the price increase and pushing much of it into fees is more beneficial to airlines because it saves them the 7.5% tax on domestic airfares. The more money shifted into fees and out of base fares, the less in taxes airlines are paying. We get fees because of the distortionary impact of federal taxes.

At some level we could pay higher fares or we could pay a base fare and then pay more in fees.

There’s No Plot Against Coach Passengers

It’s not reasonable to believe that airlines are trying to make the base level flying experience worse so that we’ll pay fees to avoid it.

The base flying experience isn’t actually getting worse, outside of the effect of planes being full. That means security and boarding is more stressful, there’s less overhead bin space so the last folks to board have to check their bags (sure there are more people carrying on bags too to save on checked bag fees, but remember that airlines used to allow two carry on bags and not just one). It also means less elbow room, because a lower chance of having an empty seat next to you.

There is the claim in the piece that coach seating is tighter.

The seats, meanwhile, have gotten smaller—they are narrower and set closer together… “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

There’s some truth and some falsehood here. The bold claim that the roomiest economy seats are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 90s is demonstrably false. United economy plus on an Airbus A320 is both wider and with more legroom than a United 737 economy seat in the 90s. There was no economy plus then. And Airbus seats are simply an inch wider than Boeing seats, that’s not new.

What is true is that American is introducing 10-abreast seating on their international 777s. They follow airlines like Emirates and Air France in doing so. In contrast, United remains 9-abreast as it was when the airline was that plane’s launch customer in 1995.

And then there’s stuff that’s just not true:

Perhaps that’s why .. one unnamed major airline is reportedly considering introducing a level called “economy minus,” with even smaller seats than basic economy.

And there are always fake reports of Ryanair introducing flights that require you to stand the whole time. ‘Economy minus’ is a term sometimes used to contrast with extra legroom seats United offers (economy plus). And stripped down economy offerings are about moving towards a Spirit or Allegiant model of charging even more fees and lower prices (e.g. fees for carry-ons,, fees for anything you don’t do online). It’s not about “smaller seats” than economy has now.

Ultimately the flying experience is tougher because more people are flying, which is a benefit to the economy and to other people rather than a bad thing overall. The only way to avoid it would be a big subsidy from the airlines of continued losses by flying empty seats.

At the same time, Delta is running an historically good airline operation, and the inflight internet is revolutionary and just as good in coach and first class. Sure, you pay for it, but it’s not something that you used to get for free… it didn’t even exist. (And my 10 year prediction is that inflight internet eventually does become free just like it’s becoming free across the major hotel chains.)

Domestic Premium Cabin Flying is Actually Getting Worse

The idea that airlines are making their base product worse in order to upsell you is dealt a strong blow by looking at what’s happening to their premium products. While coach isn’t really getting worse, domestic first class is actually getting worse. When I first started getting upgrades in the 90s lunch on a cross country flight would often be a steak. And that was served after a separate appetizer that may have been shrimp. And was followed by a separate dessert service (not just a single cookie).

Contrast to what’s happening to American’s catering. I won’t even touch the mystery meat.

It’s not just American making cuts, either.

Bashing Airline Fees is Mood Affiliation, Not Logic

We don’t like fees. Checked bag fees are enough of an annoyance that credit card companies pay airlines big money to waive, because it drives card signups. But the fees, travel is tough, and class envy all get mixed up and tossed together without any real argument that holds together getting made.

What fees are actually being charged? And what are the complaints in the piece?

[Y]ou can pay fees ranging from forty dollars to three hundred dollars for things like boarding in a “fast lane,” sitting in slightly better economy-class seats, bringing along the family dog, or sending an unaccompanied minor on a plane.

Checked baggage isn’t free for most customers, although signing up for an airline co-brand credit card does generally waive those fees. The desperation of economy travel though can’t really come down to paying for checked bags.

Priority boarding? Clearly not something everyone used to get for free. How could it be? If everyone had priority boarding, to paraphrase Delta, then nobody has it. Not everyone can board at the same time, because physics.

Pet in cabin fees aren’t new, though they’re higher than they used to be, and something only a tiny fraction of passengers deal with. That can’t be the crux of ‘making the economy experience worse’ and first class passengers pay for this too. The same is true for unaccompanied minor travel.

Sitting in extra legroom economy seats didn’t exist in the mid-90s. United drove economy plus as a key product differentiator. American introduced extra legroom throughout the cabin but people didn’t care enough about this and choose it over other airlines even when price was the same, so American abandoned the effort. It’s only the past few years that American and Delta offered extra legroom seats in part of the cabin.

When Continental took over United, it was presumed that economy plus would go away. But they found they could make more money by offering it. It’s an improvement over the alternative, not something that used to be offered free that now comes at a price. US Airways has never had this, it’s the American merger that leads to its eventual roll out.

Not mentioned in the article is that coach meals are no longer free. Continental was pretty much the last US domestic airline holdout. But airline meals never got raves, they were the butt of jokes for years. And paid food options are often better than what used to be offered without charge. Nonetheless, this is something that could at least be offered up as something that passengers have to pay for that used to be included.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. This is a market where competition is being squeezed out by mergers and other factors being driven by profit motive and greed. The latest moves by Jetblue just help to show this. Free bags and more legroom isn’t good enough for the market and investors, they will push until you are taking advantage of your customers in every way possible. Its very hard for a company to say enough is enough these days. Some still do it, but not many. Its capitalism at an extreme.

  2. @joelfreak you want an airline industry that ISN’T driven by profit motive? Where do you see that working well?

    jetBlue’s moves may or may not work. They’re eroding what distinguishes them from their competitors, taking away a reason to choose them over their larger competitors. But they were probably giving more value than people were willing to pay for. It hasn’t been working for them. But jetBlue is one small airline.

  3. I want a world where every business I deal with isn’t always trying to get my last dollar from me. Thats the problem with many of the businesses today, and then they complain that customer loyalty isn’t there any more. It seems to be the new way to do business, instead of taking care of your customers to try to keep them for the long haul.

  4. Which has little to do with the claims in the New Yorker piece of course. Airlines take less from you to deliver transportation (inflation adjusted) than they used to, while providing an overall better product — newer planes are amazing and quiet, miles get you access to premium cabins that they never used to and those seats are far better.

    My guess is that you do quite well by the airlines overall, no?

  5. I’m confused by this post. You say that airlines aren’t charging for things they used to give away for free and then acknowledge that checked bags used to be free and that meals used to be free and that exit rows used to be free. You try, rather disingenuously, to argue that coach isn’t tighter than before, citing Economy Plus, which, of course, non-elites can only get FOR A FEE (as is surely obvious even to you, the article’s entire point is that coach has gotten tighter EXACTLY SO THAT they can up-sell you Economy Plus).

    You even admit that pet fees have increased significantly. And you know very well what’s happened to change fees and standby fees.

    The article’s basic point is that the profit motive has degraded the flying experience and that sucks. Your retort is, “No no it DOESN’T suck, because it was done for the PROFIT motive!!”

    If you start from the premise that anything done due to profit motives is fine, then yeah, the article probably looks bogus. But if you’re starting from that premise, you’ll also be unable to meaningfully engage in any of the major socioeconomic debates of the day.

  6. @Rose the New Yorker piece says seats were wider in the 9vi0s when there was no economy plus, and says that seats are narrower than the 90s. That’s just false. Airbus A320 in the past 10 years versus 737 in the 90s? 737 had narrower seats just because it has a narrower fuselage.

    The claim in the New Yorker that “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s” is simply wrong.

    I said that pet fees have gone up, but those don’t affect most flyers and the New Yorker posits that this is about us vs them inequality. But pet fees apply equally in first class.

    Nowhere do I suggest that “anything done for profit motive is fine.”

    My point is that the piece isn’t really about air travel, it’s about inequality and it’s using air travel to make its broader social point. But it gets plenty of facts wrong along the way.

  7. I have done well by the airlines because my job affords me to be able to spend alot with the airlines. My complaint is with the move by companies today to price what the market will bear, instead of what will allow them to cover their costs and make a healthy profit. This unfortunately doesn’t help to stimulate the overall economy, it just helps to line one groups pockets, and makes it hard to do business any other way in a market that is SO hard to break into like airlines.

  8. You are taking a pro-free market stance, which to be very clear I share, but I think you are taking things a bit too far to defend that position. Defending free markets does not necessitate defending big business (and in cases such as banks may actually entail the opposite). While it is nothing short of amazing that I can get from NY to the west coast for $250, that is only half the story. Forcing pax who would not want to check bags even in a bag fee-free world to check is a real cost, not to mention the stress of jockeying for a position in line while boarding and bin space on the aircraft. That airlines are larger than ever, concentration in hubs is higher than ever, and load factors are higher than ever are true because the costs of these overoptimizations are borne (mostly unbeknownst) by consumers in the form of delays.
    The game for airlines today is to get large enough to have pricing power in these “hidden” domains to surreptitiously offload more and more costs onto the consumer while keeping the costs in plain view trending lower. While I think government intervening to correct these problems would likely cause even worse outcomes for all involved, this isn’t the same as defending the current state of affairs as “good” as you seem to do (naturalistic fallacy).

  9. Not all regulation is bad, I’d like to see a mandated minimum seat pitch of 30″ and one checked bag included. The free market is fine and dandy, but these private planes are flying through public airspace, landing at public airports, and setting some boundaries is not unreasonable.

  10. I always see airfare prices compared to “deregulation” and “since the dawn of aviation.” And flying is so cheap it’s almost free now, so shut your trap. But to me that comparison is totally irrelevant – show me the chart from say 1994 onward and then make a claim about how the airlines are treating us. That’s a 20 year period of pretty consistent costs and product – the planes are essentially efficient, automated, reliable, ETOPS, A320 complete. Inflation-adjusted with fees what’s it look like? And maybe throw oil in there instead of inflation for good measure.
    Also, WRT “upgrades etc,” I think it’s OK to file under don’t hate the player, hate the game. If Gary is honest, he’s getting something for less than it costs. So who subsidizes him? People paying walk-up first class at $30k a seat? Or checked baggage fees? The economics of might defy analysis but there are winners and losers – and I do think the occasional traveler is a net loser the way the game is currently setup. Coach travel could be both better AND cheaper but at the cost of Gary’s hobby. Spirit isn’t “the only other option.”

  11. @Stannis why should checked bags be included? Are you aware that Delta, United, American, Alaska, and Southwest… and every major international flag carrier that I can think of… already offers at least the pitch that you want the government to mandate?

  12. I really like most of your posts. You provide a different perspective than other bloggers.

    But I guess every so often you have to come out toeing the party line. Those airline upgrades and free Uber rides do not pay for themselves.

  13. @bode “so shut your trap.”

    I would, but then you ask me questions..! 🙂

    You write, “show me the chart from say 1994 onward and then make a claim about how the airlines are treating us. ”

    You can get the same data from the bureau of transportation statistics, but
    http://airlines.org/data/annual-round-trip-fares-and-fees-domestic/

    “Including reservation change fees and bag fees, the average round-trip domestic journey price fell from $442.88 in 1979 to $284.99 in 2013 [in 2000 dollars]”

    Now let’s look at your preferred start date of 1994. In 1994 total average domestic airfare inclusive of fees was $273.44, which (using a calculator from the bureau of labor statistics — http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl) is #317.72 in 2000 dollars. The total average domestic airfare inclusive of fees was $385.54 in 2013, which is $284.99 in 2000 dollars.

    That means airfares have fallen 10% in real dollars between your preferred start date of 1994 and 2013 (the latest year for which data is available, since 2014 hasn’t ended yet).

  14. Although there’s some stuff to agree with in this post on the whole I find Tim Wu’s original piece more convincing.

    It’s clear something is happening to make people considerably less happy with air travel now than in the past. If everything were as rosy as Gary paints it to be, there wouldn’t this degree of anger specifically targeted at airlines.

    It’s certainly not true that fee items were never included in airfares — both bags and food were included in the price, there were no upcharge seats within cabins, change fees were not extortionate to the extent they are now and. although not exactly equal, paying for economy plus is mostly to get back some degree space that one had before. (And comparing economy to economy plus is cheating).

    What I think both Tim and Gary are missing is the role market forces play in bringing about the current situation.

    Tim misses the fact that you can largely regain the “lost” amenities either by choosing an airline that includes them (like, until soon, Jet Blue) or by paying a bit more for economy plus or for American’s “choice” packages. Those choices will get you some combination of space, food, drinks, and included baggage for one to two hundred dollars more per ticket. But people don’t do this, choosing instead to be unhappy.

    What Gary misses is that these market forces don’t act the way they are expected to on Panglossia. People actively make choices that make them less happy. Folks who buy the cheapest ticket and then complain that they want their amenities back and would even pay more if air travel were more like it used to be are saying, in effect, that they don’t want to be given the choice of cheaper-but-with-fees options.

    I do agree that a large contributor to air travel misery these days is the high load factor — I’m sure people perceive a plane with all the middle seats free as much more spacious than a plane with no empty seats at all, even if the layout is identical.

    Another factor, not discussed, is the squeeze being put on airline employees by consolidation and general attempts to reduce labor expenses. Air travel is, to some extent, a hospitality industry and it’s difficult for people to be hospitable if they’re at war with their employer.

  15. @LarryInNYC writes, “It’s clear something is happening to make people considerably less happy with air travel now than in the past. If everything were as rosy as Gary paints it to be, there wouldn’t this degree of anger specifically targeted at airlines.”

    Actually I don’t suggest they are rosy at all — just that the specific items the New Yorker piece says are wrong aren’t (in other words, it gets its facts wrong).

    So for instance when you write, “It’s certainly not true that fee items were never included in airfares — both bags and food were included in the price,” you can scan up in my post and see that I make these same points myself.

    Flying is amazing, a fantastic value, and a frustrating experience — for reasons entirely apart from what the New Yorker piece identifies. Full planes, airport security are two, the former a key item I identify in the post above. And flying was never that great to begin with, but those are two things that have gotten worse.

    Change fees, those have gone up, but that isn’t really driving the inflight experience.

    As far as “the squeeze being put on airline employees by consolidation and general attempts to reduce labor expenses” I’ll agree that bankruptcies have been used to drive down labor costs, which were one factor causing losses (think back to TWA having to operate a 747 maintenance base long after they even had 747s). But it’s not completely accurate to say that consoldiation is causing lower labor costs, American’s merger with US Airways is driving an increase in labor costs at both airlines.

  16. In 1990, I don’t recall flying transcons in narrow bodies.

    In 1990, I don’t recall major airlines offering more flights on tiny RJs than in mainline jets.

    Yes, seats have become narrower. On the same routes, the large plush seat of the 747 is now a cramped 737 one, and the 18″ seat of a 727 is now a contortionis’s RJ one.

  17. A major expense for all of the carriers is fuel. The carriers have seen their fuel costs plummet, but if anything, have raised prices. My Delta stock is up 32% in the last 4 months. My Alaska stock is up 250% in the last couple of years. Yay capitalism. However, it is getting a bit out of hand.

    To compare prices from 1979, before Alfred Kahn and Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines to the present is a ridiculous comparison-not to mention completely irrelevant. Those days were positively elegant for those who could afford to fly.

    If the airlines continue to fly full, increase prices, reduce the amount of flights, insure packed aircraft, watch the price of fuel continue to drop (or if they just hedge like crazy now) their profits will rise and the misery level of the passengers will too. And then, gosh! The people will ask the industry be re-regulated. And I will be w/them.

  18. People hate the airlines. That’s why the piece was written and why it was published (and because it furthers an agenda).

    But does anyone believe the claim in the piece is correct that the airlines are mischieviously and intentionally making flying coach as hard as possible in order to extract more money?

    And does anyone believe the evidence in the piece justifies that claim?

  19. I am all for fees etc, but only if we have a true competitive market – three major carriers does not cut it. Give me some competition, and watch the fees reduce.

    Nice point above, make profit, but don’t nickel and dime me for every cent. It is the cheapness of the squeezing of money from passengers that is disgusting when flying. (Personally, as 1K and AA EXP, I am able to avoid it, but I am still disgusted seeing it among fellow passengers).

    After all, there are things in the world that can be valued moré than just profit.

  20. I love airlines and everything to do with aviation. I’ve been a certified flight instructor-instrument and airplane since 1981. I even get a kick out of the frequent flyer game.

    I do not believe that airlines are intentionally raising the misery bar to extract more money from passengers. I think consolidation, winnowing of flights, raising prices when their costs go down, ridiculous change fees, using smaller aircraft all have a collateral and unfortunate impact on passengers. I think it’s driven by the same thing capitlism is based on. $ and profit. Isn’t that what Econ 101 tells us? The goal of a corporation is to maximize profit.

    Can you please show me where in the New Yorker piece it says:

    the airlines are mischieviously and intentionally making flying coach as hard as possible in order to extract more money?

    I think that is a pejorative conclusion and it’s a stretch from what the story actually says….

  21. I reread the New Yorker story and here’s where you got it….

    That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

    So, upon reflection Gary…yeah, maybe. I guess the counter argument is that all of the changes that have been wrought to maximize profit have in fact had the effect-intended or otherwise-of making commercial flying a whole lot less fun than it used to be.

  22. No proof is needed, because as we all know, Capitalism is evil. And airlines are the worst offenders of all, putting out greenhouse gasses that are causing the Maldives to be submerged by melting glaciers, and the polar bears to be eaten by crocodiles.

    That’s why we all want to vacation in the worker’s paradise of Cuba. Using miles and points from the sign-up bonuses from our MegaBank credit cards, of course. 🙂

  23. @LarryInNYC Exactly this: “Folks who buy the cheapest ticket and then complain that they want their amenities back and would even pay more if air travel were more like it used to be are saying, in effect, that they don’t want to be given the choice of cheaper-but-with-fees options”

    It is not a choice when one’s entire family or one’s business supervisors all insist that you book the cheapest option. The fees create a whole new level of conflict with one’s co-workers, friends, and family that didn’t use to be there. It matters not if airlines are not “intentionally” making you more miserable. It only matters that they ARE making people more miserable. No one denies that this business model has greatly increased the amount of human misery on this planet for no honorable purpose other than lining some already rich person’s pockets. I wouldn’t object if they were all nationalized tomorrow.

  24. @Gary, when you say “Actually I don’t suggest they are rosy at all — just that the specific items the New Yorker piece says are wrong aren’t. . .” it seems to me that your experience of flying is actually quite different from the average flier.

    When is the last time any of the following happened to you:

    – Asked to pay $140 to check one bag each for four members of a family traveling together (or pay any bag fee).

    – Required to pay $800 to reschedule four people due to an auto problem (or any change fee).

    – Told that you will be required to pay $35 to sit next to your 3 year old child.

    – Had an already loaded carry-on removed from the plane due to no space available.

    – Been denied a full can of soda.

    – Tried to purchase a sandwich during a six-hour flight only to find that the three that were loaded are already gone.

    – Sat in a non-plus, non-exit-row economy class seat.

    Personally, I’d give the hordes of people with the torches and pitchforks a little more agency in deciding what, in fact, it is that they’re mad about.

    No offense meant as I (like most readers) greatly admire your travel know-how, but I suspect flying just doesn’t look the same from the first-class lounge as it does from the back of the plane.

  25. @RobertHanson is apparently a tongue in cheek happy go lucky fellow as everyone knows global warming is a hoax and capitalism only has winners and no losers—well, maybe the 20% of US children under age 18 who live in poverty, but what is 16 million kids when you can get a sign up bonus from Chase to go to Cuba. By the by, I’d love to visit Cuba. Cool cars!!

    but back to the airlines!

  26. > The base flying experience isn’t actually getting worse, outside of the effect of planes being full.

    I have been frequently flying various airlines on coach (Mostly Continental, then United) between JFK & NRT for 30 years, and I can definitely say that the food service has gone down drastically over the years. 30 years ago, there were three full meals that no one could finish. 15 years ago, there was dinner, mid-night cup noodle & ice-cream, and breakfast. Now there is just one “meal” (attendants never seem to know if it’s lunch or dinner) and two “snacks”.

    On my recent flights on United they’ve even eliminated the mid-night ice-cream and substituted it with a cold roll-bun with a tiny slice of cheese and ham inside. The breakfast “egg” looks like it came out of a tube mix, well oiled to make your stomach uncomfortable during immigration.

    I do agree that this isn’t because United is trying to make coach uncomfortable to make you spend more, since you get the same food with Economy Plus and there’s no option to upgrade food. (The a-la-carts aren’t great either) It’s that at the end of the day coach is about flying and customers like me will still choose crappy food over business class. I recently bring lots of meal bars.

  27. @Gary

    You say “But it’s not completely accurate to say that consoldiation is causing lower labor costs, American’s merger with US Airways is driving an increase in labor costs at both airlines.”

    How much more do you have to twist yourself until you become a pretzel? While what you say is quasi true in the short term, the long term picture will look drastically different. Forst ofvall, the raises that are coming are happening in exchange for greater productivity and they were the bargaining chip without which Dougie woould not have been able to take over AA.

    Secondly, take a look at how DL and to some extent UA have operated since their merger…

    Step 1) tell everyone that the merger will be good for the flying public and all employees.

    Step 2) Gradually reduce frequencies at your least profitable hubs.

    Step 3) Offer buyouts to any senior employee possible

    Step 4) If needed, hire new, young, much cheaper employees.

    Step 5) Close the hub(s) you’ve been cutting for a while.

    This takes a few years, but eventually, AA will nuke PHX as a hub (very low O&D and tons of VFR/vacationers/snowbirds) and I think with AA, there will be at least one more hub that will be nuked.

    The long term labor savings will be substantial, or else the mergers would never have happened. Last but not least, with fewer employers out there, employees in the industry have less options and that increases the leverage at the bargaining table for the airlines.

  28. @stannis – “Not all regulation is bad, I’d like to see a mandated minimum seat pitch of 30″ and one checked bag included.”

    Do they also need to mandate a re-bundle of the salad and baked potato with the steak dinner at my favorite restaurant?

  29. @Aaexplat – I do not think that the Delta/Northwest or United/Continental mergers have made flyers better off, but I think labor savings came through the serial bankruptcies of each carrier rather than the mergers as such

  30. We didn’t used to hate the airlines. I flew hundreds of thousands of miles back in the early to mid eighties. My favourite airlines back then were Pan Am,National and Eastern. People Express was great, just not around long enough. The thing I remember most about them was that their people were really great. I recall the attitude was, “Yes, you can have that!” or “Sure, you can do that!” Not like today, where most responses by employees are, “No you can’t do that!” Or, “No you can’t have that!”
    Things were changing, airlines were deregulated and it was basically every airline for itself. As a paying customer, I really didn’t notice the changes to the companies; just what the interior of the aircraft looked and felt like, and how long it took to get to my destination. One change I noticed was it took longer – I couldn’t fly non-stop as much. I had to first stop at a so-called “hub”.
    Most of the changes on paper seem to be good for the companies. Not so sure for the customers, but it seems to me that at least according to the companies, customers seem to care about price above all else.
    I stopped flying a lot by 1990, then took a trip to Zimbabwe last year. Flying domestic economy was an eye opener – cramped, crowded, a much less pleasant experience.
    And security….well this is post 9/11! :+)
    My memory might be a bit fogged, but I don’t think people were quite so miserable walking down that ramp to the plane door back then as they seem to be now.
    My thought is airlines should, by all means try to make a profit.
    But they should balance that with consideration for their meal tickets – us passengers!

  31. I’m all for paying for what you want. I have observed that half the premium economy seats are empty on lots of flights. If you don’t want the discomfort of coach seating, pay a little more! This is not neuro-surgery. If you chose an economy seat and don’t have an affiliated credit card or status in a frequent flyer program, you’ll pay for your bag and will board later. If you fly up front, you have expedited security. If you join Pre-Check, you’ll have a much better experience at security. What about this concept is so difficult for people to understand?

  32. I’m with Gary on this one. I remember those wonderful days with smoke filled cabins, several commercial crashes a year, and fares that were often in current dollars (not just in real dollars) higher than now. Some people will complain about anything.

  33. LarryinNYC is right.

    People feel losses twice as much as gains, and each loss event has its own threshold.

    So you ‘lose’ not just once when you buy your ticket. But at several steps in the process now.

    As an elite flier most of the unbundled is already bundled for you.

    A very different experience.

    And people think in terms of momentum.

    The real ‘value’ of flying in inflation adjusted terms peaked in 2009. It’s been becoming steadily more expensive since, and is now reaching levels last seen 20 years ago in the 1990s.

    That’s a big reduction of consumer surplus, and reason for people to complain.

    Of course the prior model was untenable with the heavy losses. But the New Yorker and Larry are coming from a reasonable base – as a consumer, not shareholder.

  34. Gary, one checked bag should be included because it will alleviate the unsafe crowding of carry-on space.

    As for seat pitch, if “Delta, United, American, Alaska, and Southwest… and every major international flag carrier that I can think of” already meet the proposed minimum then it clearly isn’t burdensome. The thing about a race to the bottom is that if you don’t build a floor you wind up in the mud.

    Colleen, thanks for your facetious analogy.

  35. @larryinNYC bravo. This is what almost everyone who reads boardingarea forgets. What it is like to be a nobody. The majority of travelers are nobodys. Flying costs more than it did back then, due to everything being a separate bill, and needing to be added in. There is clearly NOT enough competition to make a real difference, if there was, we would see attention paid to how customers are treated, and fares that are related to actual costs rather than what they think they can take from you.

  36. Stannis, please understand that my comment was meant as neither flip nor snarky.

    At about the same time as “unbundling” came about in the airline industry, it also appeared in the restaurants. Suddenly, the steak dinner, which in the past was ordered as a meal including salad and baked potato, became an “a la carte” ordering experience. Steak only. Salad is extra, as is the spud.

    When we asked, it was explained that some folks didn’t want these extras built into their price. Therefore “a la carte” ordering. I throw the hooey card in that it was about the $$, but I digress. In general, the prices for a meal went up.

    Is it any different for an airline ticket?

  37. @Joelfreak Read Gary’s comment (#14). In short, “[i]ncluding reservation change fees and bag fees, the average round-trip domestic journey price” fell from $442.88 in 1979 to $317.72 in 1994 to $284.99 in 2013 (all figures in 2000 dollars).

  38. Another point about fees is that they are exempt from the 7.5% federal tax on airfare. The more costs an airline can convert to a “fee” the more money they can keep.

  39. Shorter version: “It’s all your head, move along folks, nothing to see here.” Reputation is also a marketplace. There’s very clear reasons airlines are so unpopular, and its not just because the plebes are whiny.

    You have to be careful whenever you here corporatists using very carefully selected language like “it wasn’t profitable”. It usually means is “we saw a way to make even more profit while not increasing costs”. Profit is not a zero sum game but corporatists and their apologists treat it as such because they cannot think creatively about the win-win — nor can they see the big picture where the perceived “costs” of the win-win are actually not costs at all. But if your end all be all is money, of course you miss everything else.

    Airlines are doing everything to maximize profits as is their right. But to pretend that has no cost to the consumer and that the consumers’ views of those costs are silly is disingenuous at best. Airlines could offer roomier planes while still turning a profit: they don’t because to do so does not mean being “unprofitable” but because doing so means “less profit”. The author does not understand — or can’t admit — that those are not the same things.

  40. @LarryinNYC & @Good service make the points that Gary is missing about the flying product that the average person — not the mileage aficionado — experiences. I get your point, Gary, that some of what is in the NYer piece may be inaccurate, but the larger point is more important and is pretty darned true. Seats are thinner and less comfortable than they used to be, as is seat pitch. Smaller, less comfortable planes are substituted for the ones we used to travel in (which — since you only compare similar plane types from then and now — puts you in the position of engaging in an argument that is as selective and dogmatic as the one you accuse the NYer of using.) Planes are too often filthy — especially in the back — which I never encountered before the mid-2000s. Stressed (and fewer-per-flight) cabin attendants work longer hours with lesser benefits and lower effective pay, and so — not surprisingly — provide worse service than those we encountered twenty years ago. We DO now have to pay for things that we didn’t have to pay for before, and some of them that are Vital to our flying experience — notably food and checked baggage. Airlines avoid paying their fair share of taxes by exploiting the fee loophole and they charge “fuel surcharges” even when fuel prices are low. Promises (i.e.: lifetime status or the value of a mile) are routinely broken by an industry that has the legal right to do such things, but is — if we’re being honest — using bait-and-switch tactics for which companies in other arenas could be fined, (successfully) sued or even indicted. As for the argument that flying has gotten cheaper: computers have gotten even cheaper over that same period, but they have become better in the process, not worse (the same can be said for TVs, cars, hotels, restaurants, etc. etc.) Other than in-flight entertainment, there is no part of the domestic flying experience that has gotten better. (Inter-continental flying is the opposite, especially in premium cabins…except for United.) The point, Gary, isn’t that airlines are trying to make a profit, it’s that most of them (I leave jetBlue and sometimes American out of this opinion) value profit and shareholders above employees and customers, especially lower-end customers. The balance is missing, and too often, we can feel their contempt.

  41. I can only speak to international travel and not so much travel within the US, but my take on the whole “buy a better seat” argument is: for long-haul, the price difference is insane. Do you seriously want me to pay at least 50% more just so I don’t feel like I took a literal bus? Because that’s what the difference to, say, premium economy is.

    50% of, say, a $200-300 fare may not be too bad, but for a trans-Pacific fare? Ouch. Business is triple economy fares. You can’t say “pay for what you want” when the difference is that extreme.

    Increasingly, it seems like air travel is becoming towards one of two extremes: either luxury travel for the lucky (either elite status or wealth), and self-propelled cargo for the rest of us. This is insane. It’s like if you wanted to buy a car, the choice was either a Trabant or an Aston Martin.

  42. This would be all correct IF the airlines truly unbundled the services and perks, and the base fare got cheaper as a result of the product being crappier, with fees helping step back up to normal quality.

    Somehow, I doubt that’s what they’re doing. They’re stealing more and more features from the product they sell, while likely keeping the price the same and using the misery as an incentive to pay more. Otherwise, what the heck is the point, if they’ll be back to square one making the same money.

    Also, while some upgrades like E+ are justifiable, many fees like selecting seating are doing nothing but monetizing human misery and fear. If you want to sit with your family…pay up for reserved seats. Pure profit while providing nothing of value in return.

  43. Gary,

    As soon as you compared the United Economy Plus seat to 1990s United economy seat with the excuse that the Plus didn’t exist before…..you lost me! Compare apples to apples! I totally agree with New Yorker’s argument that making you uncomfortable will make you pay more money for travel comfort. This has backfired because I know many people who will not fly at all, anymore. Delta’s and United’s genius move on earnng miles will have its consequences. You can post whatever you want, but obviously you are not experiencing the negativity that most non-frequent flyers experience.

  44. The big scam with fees is tax-avoidance. The IRS allows airlines to avoid paying taxes on the fees vs. tickets. Otherwise, it is what it is. Don’t like the product, don’t buy it. I fly Jet Blue if they go there or Southwest. With the changes coming to Jet Blue and their misleading spin in response to online outrage, I am considering switching to Delta or another airline with a better frequent flyer program than TrueBlue, which doesn’t offer much, even to Mosaic customers.

  45. @ frequent churner “monetizing human misery and fear” What are you afraid of? Your leg cramping? I’m 6′ 3″ and mostly legs and I’ve never experienced “extreme suffering” (dictionary definition of misery) flying coach. (which is still mostly what I fly) flying from Boston to LA I might experience some slight discomfort. I can live with slight discomfort.

  46. This is what comes of someone who runs a site “for entertainment purpose only” and decides, hilariously, to “think.” The article has so many examples of babble posing as “logic” to choose from–but I’ll just go with this winner. “The idea that airlines are making their base product worse in order to upsell you is dealt a strong blow by looking at what’s happening to their premium products. While coach isn’t really getting worse, domestic first class is actually getting worse.” The obvious problem this “argument” faces is that, with coach getting so much worse (obvious to everyone not profiting from the transgressions of the airline biz), there’s no reason for the airlines to keep premium products really premium–because, by comparison, the new “premium-minus” will still be much better than the increasing hell of coach, and the people who can will still pay the premium price–even when that price goes up for less. But I guess this article reveals a far greater problem facing us than just the airlines’ behavior; it shows there’s a huge divide between a liberal doing “thinking” (which is more like cogitation) and a right-winger doing “thinking” (which is more like whatever I wish were true is true). If only there could be a “premium” America to live in–like the one envisioned by our Founding Fathers, who as leaders of The Enlightenment were of course profoundly liberal. That’s one thing the right-wing Business Firsters will never be accused of: enlightenment.

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