Anyone of an older generation remembers the days when airlines were regulated and flying was a luxury. Some of you can recall the days when airlines dispensed a five pack of cigarettes with your airline meal. While most of us are glad that smoking has been banned on airplanes, the other changes that have happened in the industry since then have combined to turn air travel into a gross spectacle of human misery.
Modern day air travel is functional proof that intelligent regulations still have a place in the world. Left to their own devices, airlines do not become more competitive, they devolve into a giant game of monopoly where the profits flow to a small number of players at the top. The air travel market we live in today is not a free and open market; it’s a cartel run by four big players.
Mergers Are Not Your Friend
Airline mergers have trimmed consumer choices and long haul routes are now dominated by a relative handful of airlines. More than 80% of domestic air travel is now handled by just four airlines. Airlines as a collective have managed to increase profits without raising the top line cost of tickets. Instead airlines have cut services and make up for fare hikes with additional fees.
Consumers, fixated on always getting the lowest price, have turned the top line pricing of airline tickets into a running joke in the travel industry and transformed the experience of flying into a giant game of gotcha. There are fees to board early for a chance at the precious space in overhead bins and, like a game of Musical Chairs, there are fees for passengers who end up checking their bags when that space runs out. There are fees for seats with extra legroom, fees for meals and airlines would charge for oxygen if it was legal. It’s all gotten quite insane and it’s going to get worse. Airlines made nearly $6.4 billion in fees last year. That’s powerful incentive to continue the dysfunctional game.
Legroom? What Legroom?
The average amount of legroom, called the “pitch” between seats, has dropped from 33 inches to just 31 inches and some budget airlines, like Spirit, have shrunk the space between rows to just 28 inches. Airlines with the most free legroom include Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska; for everyone else you’re paying an extra fee to just get the amount of legroom that used to be standard on all airlines.
So Long Armrests
Anything that reduces the number of actual seats is eventually going to go and aircraft manufacturers are already moving toward seats that don’t have armrests in order to move seats closer together. Armrests have already started getting narrower, so the next logical step is simply doing away with them and airline manufacturers are already on board with that trend.
The number of bathrooms in coach has fallen from three to just two and there are constant lines for anyone seated in the back rows. There was a time when you could poach off the first class bathroom but many airlines have now cut off that tactical retreat.
If you’re wondering why the FAA hasn’t clamped down on airlines looking for new ways to stuff more people into every corner of an airplane, it’s because the human passengers and their luggage are only a small percentage of the weight of an aircraft. Even though it’s inconvenient for you, the weight of passengers and their luggage is only about 10% of the total weight of the aircraft. That means the trend of stuffing more and more people into less and less space is only going to get worse. If you think flying is bad now, just wait a few months. Flying is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.