Taking Flight from Air Travel
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Continental Airlines announced this week that it's reducing service to its air passengers. While you wonder what, exactly, is left in the way of service to airline passengers that could possibly be cut, consider that this comes on the heels of American Airlines' elimination of 7,000 workers last week, and persistent rumors of United Airlines going into bankruptcy.
That's three of the country's five biggest (and only) airlines, and the others aren't far behind. Despite a lucrative congressional bailout of the airline industry while the ashes of the World Trade Center were still smoldering, and despite months of low fares and aggressive promotion, the airline industry is still hemorrhaging money.
Almost every news account, without exception, attributes this "problem" to 9/11. But it's not quite so simple.
It's true that in the immediate aftermath of the successful hijacking and fatal crashing of four separate jets within an hour of each other, a lot of people stopped flying. And the new security measures added some time and hassle to the journey for returning passengers.
But after a full year in which nothing fatal, or even particularly scary, has happened on a domestic flight, ridership remains low. It's stayed low despite the cheapest fares in years; despite actual appeals to our patriotism to lure us back to the airport (or back as often as we used to go). All this is true despite the now-normal, far more stringent security measures -- which, though inconvenient, many passengers are grateful for. Something more than fear of another 9/11 is going on, and I think I know what it is.
Modern air travel is torture. When we stopped flying for a while, many of us discovered that we rather enjoyed not being tortured, thank you very much.
As the airlines have lost money, they've compounded the problem by attempting to lure us back with, um, additional torture. Southwest Airlines -- one of the financially healthiest of the bunch -- decided a couple of months ago to raise some extra cash by charging for two seats when people whose beer bellies or visible ribs protruded into the next seat. Since Southwest, like most other airlines, designed its seats to fit snugly -- for a Barbie doll -- almost everyone qualifies.
Near as anyone could figure, the geniuses at Southwest either didn't care or had never even suspected that this was literally a sore point with many of their customers. Just like airline execs assumed that we wouldn't notice when they started calling unusually well-salted mini-pretzels a meal, or suddenly (and far from sympathetically) demanding $2000 for emergency travel).
Or perhaps execs assumed that we like buying our tickets the way some people play the lottery -- scratch, and today your fare may be $150, or $600. How is that figure arrived at? Who knows? Who cares? Since most people kind of like knowing that they paid a reasonable price for their service -- not four times more than the next guy, for no apparent reason -- the ridiculously byzantine pricing structure of modern air travel is widely resented, 9/11 or no. So is having to fly through a second city to get just about anywhere -- whether that city is on the way or not. L.A. to Houston? No problem. Change in Boston. (Unless, of course, you're going to Boston. Then, you change in Dublin.) And so on.
(The pinnacle of this, for me, was when I was sold a redeye ticket from Seattle to St. Louis "with one changeover." The changeover turned out to be in Portland, with one additional stop -- back in Seattle. I flew to Portland, changed, and the new jet flew from Portland to St. Louis via Seattle, meaning I could have slept an extra four hours instead of taking my quick and useless round trip to Portland.)
You can even add class resentment to the list of customer irritants. Airline travel is the one aspect of American society where not being rich gets rubbed into our faces -- or, more accurately, crammed into our chests, which is where our knees will be for five hours after we walk through the spacious First Class accommodations, paid for by people using other folks' money -- their company's money, or perhaps daddy's. It pisses people off.
People have been angered by this kind of stuff for years, but many of us figured there was nothing we could do about it. Then 9/11 came, and a new issue -- self-preservation -- meant that we had to find alternatives: drive, train, bus, cruise ship, bike trip, or, most often, simply not going.
And guess what? Many of us haven't come back. We discovered that being crammed for six hours into a space smaller than our bank's safety deposit box and fed peanuts -- and paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege -- wasn't something we had to do at all. In fact, we got along just fine without it, and going back to the experience has somehow lost its romantic luster. In the same way, I suppose, that paying a dominatrix gets old after a while.
This, I suspect, is the airlines' problem -- not that we're a nation of cowards, refusing to risk another mass hijacking episode with terrorists. More apt would be to say that we're a nation of people with a modicum of self-esteem that has discovered we need not abuse ourselves for others' profit. It's a problem that has been years in the making.
Cutting service is exactly the wrong response. Airlines have been doing this for years -- squeezing a few extra dollars from the dignity of their customers -- and now nobody is flying. Why is anyone surprised?