In Defense of Air Travel

The New York Times recently ran a large story, complete with photographs, by a woman who criss-crossed the U.S. on airplanes four times over eight days, taking 12 flights on four different airlines—and then wrote about the experience. You can read it here.

flyingPredictably, she wrote about how the experience was dehumanizing, tiring, crowded, etc.—things we’ve all heard before. But that, of course, was exactly her reason for taking 12 flights in eight days. She had no other purpose in taking these flights than getting material for the story. And then, having achieved her goal, she complained about it!

Now, I recognize that one reason people love to complain about air travel is that misery loves company, so complaining strengthens social bonds.

But I think that everyone who complains about the poor food, the tight legroom, the crowds, etc. should first do an honest self-appraisal. When they bought their seats, what factors did they consider?

Chances are, they considered two factors above all—schedule and cost. And then they chose the cheapest flights that would get them where they wanted to go when they wanted to go. And thus they ended up surrounded by hordes of other people who did exactly the same thing.

Factors these fliers could have considered are the airline’s safety record, on-time record, food quality, lost baggage record and seat width and pitch, but to most people, price is the number factor.

And the airlines know this! They don’t squeeze us into tight spaces because they’re cruel and insensitive. They do it because they’re trying to give customers what we prize above everything else. And what we want is to get where we’re going, for the lowest possible cost.

They’ve tried giving everyone more legroom, but it didn’t pay off. And they’ve tried spending more on food and passing the cost along, but that didn’t work either.

But low prices are working very well—and part of this is due to the deregulation of air travel in 1978, which opened the gates to competition.

In 1965, no more than 20 percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane. By 2000, 50 percent of the country took at least one round-trip flight a year. From the 1970s to 2011, the number of air passengers tripled.

And a lot of it is due to falling prices.

airline ticket pricesIn the U.S., there’s some worry that the big carriers—American, Delta and United—have a stranglehold on the business. But I see plenty of competition, including Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin, and Spirit.

And for international routes, there are a slew of low-cost competitors muscling in, including Norway Air, WOW and Turkish Air.

In my mind, the biggest problem in the airline industry is our antiquated air traffic control system. As a part of the federal government, it is by nature bigger and slower moving than a private (or public-private) enterprise could be. Canada, for example, has a more advanced system than ours.

In the meantime, I continue to enjoy every flight I take. I think that simply being up there is a miracle, and the fact that more and more people are able to do it at lower and lower cost is a triumph of our (relatively) free market.

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