There once was a time when traveling on commercial airlines was fun. It was not just the prospect of getting to your destination; the experiences at the airport and up in the air were actually enjoyable.
The Wright brothers had no way of knowing what they would start when in December 1903 Orville piloted their aircraft the grand distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds ... the world’s first manned flight. In the first few decades of aviation, the world was enthralled by feats of derring-do.
World War I brought the romantic image of pilots, flying their flimsy machines in dog fights which initially involved firing pistols and tossing bricks at each other and dropping grenades on those unfortunate enough to be below. In May 1919 a U.S. Navy Curtiss flying boat made the first crossing of the Atlantic, leaving New York and ariving 11 days later in Lisbon, Portugal, stopping in Newfounland and the Azores. In June of that year, Alcock and Brown made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic crossing, flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in just under 16 hours (requiring Brown to climb out on the wings frequently, while in flight, to remove ice from the engine intakes).
October 1924 saw the first nonstop flight from the European mainland to the United States, but it was a Zeppelin flying from Germany to New Jersey. And then in May 1927, Charles Lindberg enthralled the world with a 33-1/2-hour solo nonstop flight between New York and Paris. The feat earned Lindberg the Congressional Medal of Honor, a ticker-tape parade through New York, and the status as a true national hero. After WWI, stunt pilots barnstormed the nation, giving acrobatic exhibitions and rides.
Aircraft became larger and able to carry bigger payloads. In the 1920s they started carrying mail, the income earned fueling expansion into other areas. This was the time when a number of commercial airlines were born, including American, United, PanAm and Northwest, many started by the aviators who had pioneered the technology.
In the late 1920s Ford’s Trimotor was able to carry 12 passengers. In the late 1930s the DC-3 arrived on the scene, able to carry both mail and up to 21 passengers (some aircraft were equipped with sleeping berths for long flights). After World War II bomber technology found its way into large passenger aircraft design and then, in the 1950s the jet.
This was a time when the airlines were run by people whose main focus was on flying. Seating and leg room were ample and comfortable. Most passengers dressed to fly; jackets and ties were the norm. Airlines vied with each other over food service and other comforts, both on domestic and international flights. Planes often flew with enough empty seats to give one a feeling of space, air fares were rational (certainly by today’s standards), airlines were responsible for taking care of passengers (e.g. relating to delays or missed connections), and agreements allowed passengers to transfer from one airline to another in such situations. There were no cancellation fees, change fees, baggage fees (except for large excesses). The passenger was looked after.
Then, mostly in the 1980s, things changed. At the top, the old guard was replaced, not by aviators but by individuals with backgrounds in finance and marketing. Routes were added, expensive aircraft were purchased, debt structures were increased to where revenues and costs came into a precarious balance -- unsustainable in times of economic downturn. The old names started to disappear, some through merger, many through bankruptcy. In desperation, the airlines started to turn to “new alternatives” to survive the situation they had created. And, simultaneously, strong government regulatory mechanisms, oriented to providing consumer safeguards and regulating airline behavior, were dismantled.
“Crazy” fares were one result. Today, a passenger may pay several times the fare of the person sitting in the next seat. Seats became smaller and leg space was reduced -- to cram more passengers into the same space -- unfortunately at the same time that Americans were growing taller and broader in girth. Meals and amenities became history as cost-cutters went to work.
Tickets on one airline were no longer accepted on another. And then fees were added to cover every contingency that the airlines could imagine -- to change flights, to purchase food, to check baggage (even to carry on bag) and to reserve a seat or a place in line. Flights were severely reduced, so that they would fly full (obviously the most profitable short-term scenario) -- showing callous concern for customer needs or convenience. And all of this built on top of the problems and procedures introduced by the “war against terrorism.”
So where are we headed? The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that in the first nine months of this year, the airlines took in $4.3 billion in fees, an amount that will likely make up total profits for the year. If we stick solely to the financial analysis, the following scenario may portray the future of commercial aviation.
More fees will be assessed and existing fees will be added. There will likely be a fee to board the plane and an even greater one to get off. Whereas today there are extra charges for “premium” seats (aisle, front of aircraft, emergency row), you will be consigned to a standing-room-only section if you do not pay for a seat. There will be charges for bringing food onto the aircraft, and extra charges if you bring condiments. Flat baggage charges will be replaced by fees based on the items you carry ... so much for a skirt, so much for a pair of shoes, etc. And finally, since it is clear that the most profitable part of commercial aviation is in the “extras,” the airlines will just stop flying planes and stick solely to charging fees!
There is a serious problem in the way airlines treat their customers. No organization provides an effective countervailing force on behalf of the consumer. Despite grumbling, we have become used to paying more than the quoted airline fare (ever buy an automobile and then pay an add-on for the steering wheel?)
The airlines have shown themselves unwilling to regulate themselves, and competition, within an oligopoly is not very effective mechanism. As more airlines merge, the consumer will be at greater and greater mercy of the carriers. Clearly, the behavior of the industry provides a strong argument for regulatory measures, if not by government, then by some type of consumer/industry organization. The free enterprise system works well only if companies behave in a responsible manner, there are enough companies to develop a truly competitive environment, and the consumer is both willing and able to speak out and make choices. We seem to be lacking in all three categories, which, in the long run, does not “fare” well for anyone!
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.