(See Part 1 here) Today: How did the airlines contribute to the miserable relationship passengers have with the carriers?
I do think airlines have contributed to the current state of passenger-airline relations, though it does not excuse the level to which it has degenerated. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that in 1974 the flying experience was akin to taking a luxury cruise; it was not. Regulation kept fares high, competition at a minimum, frequencies capped, and international flying out of reach of most. In-flight service may have included food, but everyone complained nonstop about its quality. Perhaps seats had more legroom, but not always. Certainly today Premium Economy cabins have made extra legroom available to those who are willing to pay a bit more for the room. And let’s be honest — Premium Economy tickets on many routes are roughly the cost of a coach ticket to Europe in 1974.
The complaints really started, though, after deregulation, when fares dropped, far more people were able to fly, and the system (both the air traffic system, and the way an airline runs more generally) became more taxed than ever. Low fare carriers entered the market, competing on price in exchange (arguably) for a lower level of service.
Since few passengers put a premium on the service offered by legacy airlines, these carriers were forced to lower the prices to match new entrants. No company can do that without cutting costs somewhere. And cut they did. Sure, they tried to weather that storm for years, but that resulted either in years with billions lost or boom years where they charged $2000 for a last minute trip to Dallas. Both of these scenarios played into the hands of new entrants. Again, services were cut, the system was taxed, and consumers were left wondering what the hell happened.
I don’t blame the airlines for stooping to the lowest common denominator — passengers have shown repeatedly that they won’t spend extra for amenities (Exhibit 1: AA’s More Room in Coach experiment). I do, however, see 4 areas that have led, at least in part, to the situation we’re in.
— Airline advertising. Airline advertising in the 1940s and 1950s focused in large part on the destination rather than on any airline-specific benefits. You’ve likely seen the great art deco mid-century posters touting how you can fly American Airlines to MIAMI or other cities. The ability to get to the world’s great cities quickly was the primary benefit an airline provided. Where in 1935 a visit to San Francisco from New York was either inconceivable or requiring two weeks of train travel, suddenly an executive could hop onboard and view the Pacific in less than a day.
Sometime later airlines moved the focus from, roughly, “we’ll get you there” to “we’ll get you there in style” (or some variation on those themes). That message resonated as more people were able to travel and the idea of being pampered in the air – both in coach and first class – became more appealing, and airlines upped their in-flight amenities to appeal to these frequent travelers who were no longer awed simply by the idea of travel. These were the brief, but golden, years of piano lounges in 747s and chateaubriand.
Then as legacy airlines were forced into price competition following deregulation, they continued to try to differentiate themselves from lowfare airlines in advertisements by touting service. Only now they were cutting in-flight service and suddenly these claims of “something special in the air” rang hollow. Very hollow.
Somehow, even as it is pretty clear that the in-flight experience is not exactly what it once was carriers continue to market using a service-focused message (“we know why you fly” or the ridiculous ads Continental recently ran hyping their in-flight food). That has led to wildly unreasonable expectations about what your $119 transcon flight is going to get you. Airfares are, without question, one of the world’s great bargains — on most routes over, say, 500 miles, it is cheaper to fly than to drive. Yet the expectation that advertisements have created suggest that not only will $119 get you across the country in a couple of hours (the reality of what you get for $119, and a bargain unto itself), but also that you will enjoy service akin to that found on the Queen Mary. That is ridiculous. Expectations are out of whack, and that is a problem created by airline marketing departments, and exacerbated by Americans’ endless sentiment that they are entitled to everything.
– Load factors. Flights are crowded. That is a good thing for airlines, and, frankly, passengers should not have expectations that their plane will be empty. But over time, the percentage of filled seats has increased about 10% meaning that if you’ve felt that airplanes are simply more crowded than ever, that is because airplanes are more crowded than ever. Again, no one can fault the airlines for this; if anything, they’ve figured out how to balance supply, demand and pricing so they can offer their service profitably. But it is one part of a 3-part reason as to why people are simply less comfortable when they fly.
– Narrowbody aircraft. The second part is that airlines used to fly widebody planes willy-nilly around the US on routes where it made absolutely zero economic sense. As mentioned here previously, Delta ran ads in the early 1970s promoting their 747 service between Detroit and Atlanta. Detroit. And. Atlanta. Unless the government is propping up your industry (oh wait, they were), that is unsustainable.
So airlines, as they say, downgauged their aircraft, flying smaller planes where possible. And with the new generation 737s and the A320 family of aircraft, they could suddenly fly across the country in a single-aisle plane with seating (150 or so) that was, in Goldilocks parlance, just right (yes, the 757s could fly those routes too with more seats, but the 737s and A320 really opened it up and airlines have moved those 757s in some part to trans-Atlantic flights, which is a whole other story).
While the move to narrowbodies on longer flights made economic sense, the cost was the inflight experience for passengers. Narrowbodies have fewer bathrooms, leading to in-aisle pileups of folks waiting to use the lavs after meals, and there is little-to-no room to stand up and stretch out on a 6-hour transcon to San Francisco. Add that to the more crowded flights, and passengers came to realize that they simply felt squished.
(Tomorrow – or Monday – Part 3: Final Thoughts)