If you think flying sucks now, just wait. Every annoying and dehumanizing aspect of air travel is going to get worse and there’s no end in sight. As if to illustrate just how maxed out our air travel system has become we’ve had two major airlines, Delta and Southwest, see their computerized reservation systems crash in the last six weeks. Southwest saw their system go down in July and Delta snarled airports with a computer crash last week. Thousands of people suddenly found themselves stranded. Airports were jammed with people and terminals were blocked by planes that couldn’t take off.
Those of you who can remember when air travel was a luxury have watched the experience of flying degrade gradually over the years. For many young people today the horror of modern day air travel is the only reality they’ve ever known. The whole flying experience is similar to the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pan of water. We tolerate the modern horror of air travel because the annoyance factor and fees have been turned up gradually over the years. The reason almost every aspect to air travel is going to get worse is that the main factors driving those painful changes are going to remain in place for the indefinite future.
Lack of Competition
Airline consolidations now mean that 85% of passenger travel in the U.S. is now in the hands of just four airlines. Consolidation means airlines are trying to do more with fewer people and that means more reliance on automation. That also means fewer alternatives when airlines get silly with seat sizes and extra fees. To make up the profits lost to M&A, airlines are delaying investments in technology and modernization, which is why Delta is still dependent on an aging reservation system operating in Atlanta.
Lack of Alternatives
When it comes to traveling long distances the only real choices you have are flying or driving. Passenger rail service in America is, quite frankly, a disgrace. I still believe in the potential of passenger rail service but I no longer have confidence that Amtrak is the organization to manage it. Outside a handful of areas in the Northeast corridor, rail service in the U.S. is so bad it’s a sick joke that’s not funny anymore.
Lack of Regulation
If you want to see an airline exec suddenly turn superstitious, bring up the subject of airline regulation. Surprisingly, a few meager consumer protections did squeak by the airline lobbyists but substantive change to address airline fees and seat sizes was defeated.
Even The Weather
Even the weather is ganging up on air travelers. Global warming and climate change are bringing about a ten to forty percent increase in what pilots call CAT or Clear Air Turbulence. (http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n7/full/nclimate1866.html) It was that type of turbulence that recently landed 24 passengers aboard a JetBlue flight in the hospital. Predictive models suggest we’re in for an increase in both the frequency and severity of clear air turbulence in the years ahead. Turbulence is already the leading cause of passenger injuries during air travel and that’s only going to get worse.
When it comes to the dismal state of our travel infrastructure we have only ourselves to blame. Instead of demanding change, we tolerated first one fee, then another and another. One indignity and dehumanizing step was followed by another and still we tolerate it. The only time passengers really complain is when flights are late.
We really need to see a return of the Civil Aeronautics Board which was disbanded when airlines were deregulated. Passenger gripes will never rival the power of airline lobbyists and, sometimes, government is the only entity big enough to level the playing field.