My first bona fide grown-up job was… bomber navigator. Let me set the scene for you in regard to Military Aviation during the Reagan Build-Up. Imagine six guys, average age 22.7 years, being handed the keys to a YUGE airplane loaded with 12 (nuclear-tipped) air-launched cruise missiles and six (nuclear-tipped) short-range attack missiles. And four “gravity weapons,” which was the euphemism for “Big Shiny Dr. Strangelove Atomic Bombs.” Shoot, our aircraft commander was barley three years out of college, meaning only three years removed from a) toga parties, b) grain alcohol punch, and c) sleeping through Classics 104: The Rise of Rome. If you’ve lost count, that would be 22 nuclear weapons under the control of a bunch of frat boys.
It was really cool. I mean, Jay-Z-and-Beyonce-Twins Cool. It was Airborne Animal House. There’s a good reason that, unlike in commercial aircraft, the Air Force never put cockpit voice recorders in bombers. On a cold, clear day with a cerulean blue sky—’clear and a million’ weather, we called it—flying was a transcendent and sublime experience. Which is just a long-winded way of explaining that it was really, really cool.
All of this is to say that I come to the subject of air travel with a long-standing love of flying. And a burning hatred for commercial flying.
There was a time when commercial air travel was not available to everyone. For example, in 1938, the longest commercial flight was a London-to-Brisbane route. In 2017 dollars, a single ticket ran a little over $20,000. It consisted of 11 days and about two dozen refueling stops, depending on the tail winds. Today, the same route takes 22 hours and costs about $1,800. So flying was an elite undertaking and no expense was spared in making it a deluxe comfy experience. Back in those Less Enlightened Days, flight attendants were called “stewardesses” and were required to be nurses. Given the Recent Unpleasantness on United, it might not be a bad idea to start requiring that again.
Air travel made a step closer to egalitarianism with the advent of commercial jets, most notably, the esteemed and beloved Boeing 707, introduced into service with Pan Am in 1958. Alas, neither the 707 nor Pan Am survives. This airplane shrunk the heck out of long-distance air travel and did so affordably.
Still, the clunky system of Government-defined routes and controlled fares kept the cost of flying too steep for a lot of people. This also led to weird permutations, often based on where influential Congressmen lived. For example, to fly Delta from New Orleans to Shreveport, Louisiana, you had to stop in Baton Rouge on the way. Now the distance from Nyah’luns to Baton Rouge is 80 miles, even if you count detours around alligators on the highway. And remember, this is in a jet aircraft—the pilots barely had time to get the landing gear up before putting it down again. It was worth the price of a ticket just to watch the flight attendants try to get in drink service, which was required by law, I’m fairly certain.
Let’s be frank. No one in their right mind would voluntarily fly from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It’s a 75-minute drive, which is substantially less time than getting to the airport an hour early and waiting three or four hours at the other end or for your lost suitcase. But admittedly, there are no flying alligators of which I’m aware, so it’s a little safer. But still.
One of the greatest gifts left to us (as opposed to the Panamanians, who got a big canal) from President Jimmy Carter—along with respect for human rights, usage of the word malaise and a new standard for embarrassing presidential siblings—was his signature on the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. This landmark legislation freed airlines to establish their own routing and set their own fares, which led to steadily declining prices and the infamous hub-and-spoke routing that is today’s standard.
Thus dawned the Age of Cheap Air Travel.
Proving the maxim “be careful what you ask for” or perhaps “you can’t get something for nothing,” the ultimate result of airline deregulation, when coupled with the World-Wide InterWebNet of Things & Stuff, has been the near-perfect commodification of air travel. Airline tickets are now like sacks of wheat or crates of those rubber dog poops you used to be able to buy in truck stop gift shops—we don’t really care much who grew the wheat or made the rubber dookie, as long as we get it. Same with airline seats. The internet’s tectonic contribution was the availability of near-perfect price and supply information to anyone with a wifi connection. Adam Smith is chuckling from his grave.
All the various travel websites are just about the same and we use them interchangeably. We put in “Poughkeepsie” and “Kathmandu” and a date and hit search. 99% of the time, we just take the cheapest flight. There are two notable exceptions to this Rule of the Fungibility of Flights.
First, we might pay extra—but not much—if the cheapest POU-KTM fare stops in Vanuatu, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and New Delhi over 62 hours. Second, we might limit the flight search to an airline with whom we’re trying to pile up frequent flier miles, although airlines have gotten so stingy it’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube to get anything out of these “loyalty programs.” And again, we won’t do this if it costs much more than the cheapest fare.
Otherwise, it’s about price. We want to get from Point A to Point B while parting with as few shekels as possible. Hence, air travel has become a commodity. It therefore should come as no surprise that airlines, which are after all in the business of making money, keep adding charges for new and exotic things, like a boarding pass or a suitcase. Ryan Air actually asked the European Union aviation authority if they could install pay toilets on their planes. These were also the guys who asked to make do with just one pilot if they trained a flight attendant to land the airplane in a pinch.The answer to both was, blessedly, No/Non/Nein. So of course airlines are shrinking seat size. How else do you cram more people into what have become little more than Human Mailing Tubes?
I put this in the same category as our American system of for-profit health care. If that’s what we as a people have chosen—and I understand that’s somewhat debatable—why are we outraged when an insurance company denies some erstwhile deserving person a particular drug or treatment? We told them to go make a profit, after all.
Last time I checked there are only two ways to increase profits: lower your costs and/or increase your revenue. In health care, that means raising premiums while limiting or denying care. Unlike in health care—when was the last time you asked a doctor how much he’s going to bill you for that clean syringe?—airlines are subject to a marketplace with almost perfect price competition. The way to protect profits is therefore mostly to be found on the cost end, which means you better get used to sitting for seven hours all the way to London jammed in a narrower and narrower seat between two Really Big Guys with sharp elbows who mouth breathe when they sleep.
But it’ll be cheap. In dollars at least.
What are your recent air travel horror stories? Is price the most important–or only–thing to you?