Saturday, December 24, 2011

Remember When Flying used to be a Pleasurable Experience? Security is Not the Problem - The Airlines are the Problem.

This past week my wife and I flew from Boston to San Francisco and back.  While I fly reasonably frequently, this trip crystallized for me how the consumer flying experience has deteriorated over the years.

On this trip going through security was only a minor inconvenience.  My wife has two hip replacements.  Her artificial hips set off the metal detectors; she underwent a pat-down that was performed efficiently and pleasantly by TSA personnel.  The total time it took to go through security, including waiting in line and the pat-down, was brief.  While one might wish that one would not need to go through security, it is a small price to pay for enhancing the safety of one’s flight.  Hopefully security technology will improve so that security checks in the future will be even less of an inconvenience than they are today. 

Getting through security was a small matter.  However, the rest of the flying experience left much to be desired.

In the good old days, the airlines would first board families with small children and others who require more time to board, then the first class/business class passengers would board, and finally the coach passengers would be boarded starting with the rearmost seats.  This pattern of boarding was time efficient.  By filling the coach seats starting at the back of the plane, passengers were not being blocked from boarding by passengers settling into seats further forward.  Also, in the good old days every passenger could check two bags for free.  As a result the overhead compartments were rarely full, and one could be confident that one could stow one’s carry-on and coat in the compartment over one’s seat.

The boarding procedure is now quite different.  On our flights, passengers were called to board sequentially according to their membership in approximately one-half dozen different boarding preference groups.  It seemed to me that the majority of passengers belonged to one of these preference groups.  After the preference groups were boarded the families with small children were invited to board.  After that the remaining passengers were boarded in sequence of seating group number (Group number does not appear to correspond simply to seat number; I suspect assignment to group number also includes some degree of preference).  As a matter of principle I have refused to pay for seating preference either in cash or in frequent flier miles.  My wife and I just waited for our seating group number to be called. (By peeking at the seating group numbers printed on other passengers’ tickets, I see that many passengers appear to board before their group number is called.  However, the line jumpers do not ever seem to be turned back by the ticket checker. How annoying.)

Stowing the Carry-Ons
Adding to the anxiety of boarding is the status of the overhead compartments.  In advance of both our flights, the attendant at the gate warned that the flight was full and it was unlikely that the overhead compartment could accommodate all of the carry-ons.  Earnestly, passengers were offered the opportunity to check their carry-ons at the gate – magnanimously, at no charge!  Of course, after one has cut down one’s travel gear to fit into a small carry-on piece of luggage and brought the carry-on to the gate, one is reluctant to check it and thereby add 45 minutes to one’s trip by waiting at the baggage carousel upon arrival.  My experience with checked luggage is also that the probability that it shows up at your destination is significantly less than one.

My wife and I did not succumb to the entreaties to check our carry-ons.  We walked down the plane aisle attentively, hoping that we would find some open space. Not taking chances, we stashed our carry-ons at the first opportunity in an overhead compartment many rows ahead of our own.

The boarding process was delayed as passengers attempted to ram their possessions overhead. Attendants searched the compartments, played the baggage jigsaw puzzle game, and warned the passengers of how evil it is to place one’s personal item or coat (as opposed to the carry-on) in the overhead compartment.

Between the delays attributable to the inefficient boarding process and the additional time it took to stow the carry-ons, our departures were delayed for twenty to thirty minutes.

Squeezing into the Seats
My wife and I finally arrived at our seats.  I am of average size (height and girth) and my wife tends toward the petite.  Nevertheless, we were crowded in our seats. My hips pressed on the barriers on either side of me; I could only avoid sitting in a crouched position due to the fact that I could stretch out my legs a bit because there was nothing under the seat in front of me (I confess, I placed my coat and personal item in a crevice in the overhead compartment – it wasn’t such a big transgression because my down coat was very compressible).  I thought back to the opportunity I had been offered during the online ticket purchase to pay extra for a few more inches of leg room – I had refused to be blackmailed. 

I attempted to use my laptop during most of the flight.  There is a danger here.  When the passenger in front of you reclines the back of the seat can easily catch the open lid of the laptop, drive it down edgewise and rip it off the laptop base – I just avoided this mishap.   However, once the seat in front of you is reclined one cannot sufficiently raise the lid of the laptop to view the screen while you are in the upright sitting position.  By reclining my seat and slouching down in my seat I could just see the laptop screen – and that is how I worked during the six hour flights.

Most human beings would be expected to get hungry during a six hour flight.  Serving meals used to be standard fare on flights.  The flight attendants now just offer to sell you pre-packaged (high carbohydrate) meals.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be served a meal with salad and some fruit?  My wife and I made it through with the bag of trail mix that we had brought.

The airlines appear to be always on the verge of bankruptcy or in bankruptcy.  I don’t blame them for attempting to fill their flights or charging a reasonable fee for the tickets.  However the current system, of the airlines attempting to compete on ticket price and then nickeling and diming the passengers for every minimal creature comfort, is counterproductive.  It delays the flights and makes the entire experience unpleasant. Airlines, please charge another $50 per ticket, but check the bags at no extra charge, board by reverse row number after boarding families with small children, add a few inches between seats, and serve meals. Everyone would be better off and the passengers would be more pleasant to deal with.


  1. Sadly though, the experience of the airline industry shows that most passengers will opt for the cheaper flight, regardless of addon baggage fees. Some support regulation to deal with this tragedy of the commons.

    Have you considered airline credit cards? For instance, the delta card is free for one year, gives you 45k free miles for 300 in spend, and gives you priori boarding and a free checked bag for each person in your party. You just have to remember to cancel after the first year.

  2. Dudley, thanks for your comment. I am hoping that market forces will eventually effect a change in airline behavior. The market did compel Bank of America to withdraw its monthly debit card fee (as anticipated by my post of October 5, 2011, "Not the Function of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau").

  3. Let me guess – when you bought your tickets for the flight, you went online and bought the absolutely cheapest ticket that met your scheduling criteria. Now you are huffing and puffing that you got what you paid for – a cheap seat.
    Personally, I think the current system is great. The cost of flying is now an absolute bargain. The inflation adjusted price of a cross country flight is about 1/3 of what it was 30 years ago, even though the price of fuel has risen dramatically. We can thank de-regulation and the power of the internet for squeezing the waste out of the system. Now people of very modest means can afford to fly great distances to see family and loved ones. They may be a bit cramped, but if that is the only way they can afford a flight, they are happy to endure the temporary discomfort. And if you are, let’s say, a tenured professor at MIT, then you should gladly pay the extra $50 to get extra leg room and the ability work on your laptop without interference from the reclining passenger in front of you. This is not blackmail – it is simply getting what you pay for.
    I am also glad that the airlines did away with their hot meals. I do not know what airline you flew on that had good food, but the hot meals I remember were uniformly awful. Even if the airlines could produce good food, by the time it was served on the airplane, it would be sitting for hours and be inedible. Also, the logistics required to serve those hot meals greatly added to the airlines’ costs. I would rather pay less for an airline ticket and simply buy a good $8 sandwich at Wolfgang Puck’s before boarding.
    You may be misinterpreting the zoning system the airlines use for boarding as a “preference” system. After much study, the airlines found that simply loading the rear of the airplane first was not the most efficient way to do things. That resulted in people who sit by the window crawling over people who have already taken their aisle seat. The current zoning system loads people with window seats first, so that they do not have to crawl over people sitting in the aisle.
    I also disagree with your issue with checking the luggage. Luggage is heavy and it requires extra fuel to transport it 3000 miles. When checking luggage is free, people take advantage of the situation and overpack. Why should I have to pay extra for my ticket so I can subsidize someone who wants to bring 100 lbs of junk with them? Charging for luggage has caused some people to game the system and bring more carry-on luggage, but I have not found it to be a problem that delays a flight. And when I have had the stewards check my carry-on luggage, it was returned to me shortly after I got off the airplane. I have also found that the airlines have become more efficient in retrieving checked luggage.
    Overall, the current system is much cheaper, fairer and better than the old ways of doing things. You need to realize that we are now in an a la carte system and that you are going to have to pay for the extras. It is not blackmail, it is paying for what you get. You can not expect to get a free Baked Alaska desert at a fancy restaurant, and you can not expect to pay $300 for a cross country flight and get all the great amenities. If you want them, they are there, but you will have to pay a bit extra for them.

  4. Replies
    1. I don't and won't ever fly commercial again, thank you