Why I’m Glad the “Glory Days” of Air Travel are Gone

I saw an op-ed in the New York Times over the holidays from a former TWA flight attendant that got me so riled up, I had to write a response. I sent it in to the NYT, but it was way too long to be considered as a letter to the editor, and my email to the op-ed team went ignored. So, I thought I would post it here, especially since some similar discussion has been brewing in the comments section lately. This is what I sent.

Ann Hood’s op-ed entitled “Up, Up, and Go Away,” published last week was difficult enough for me to read that I thought it worthy of a response. The days of glamorous air travel in coach are, as Ms Hood noted, certainly long gone. And with their disappearance we’ve also seen a decline in customer service, but there’s a good reason for that. Deregulation enabled fares to plummet, and people have been hooked on a cheap fare ever since. Until that changes, we won’t see a dramatic increase in customer service.

I should certainly hope that service was better back in the old days. Planes were half full and there were more flight attendants onboard. That means that each flight attendant could devote more time to each individual onboard; enough to serve elaborate dinners. Schedules weren’t nearly as demanding on flight attendants either, so they could enjoy their longer layovers more than they can today. They really did get to travel instead of simply passing out from exhaustion in some random hotel for a few hours until their next flight.

Once the industry was deregulated in the late 1970s, it all began to change. Why? Airlines could finally compete on price. That was prohibited in the past, so airlines did their best to compete on product. But once that restriction was lifted, fares went down quickly.

A TWA timetable from 1962 shows that a 707 could get me nonstop from LA to New York in roughly the same amount of time it would take today, but all those fancy amenities were quite costly. A roundtrip fare would have cost me $290.20. That’s about $2,000 in today’s dollars. Were I willing to take the “slow boat” and fly a prop across the country, I could get it for the bargain-basement price of $224.90 roundtrip, a “mere” $1,500 today.

If the airlines still charged those rates today, I wouldn’t be traveling very often and neither would most Americans. The industry would be a lot smaller, but I’m sure service would be outstanding . . . for those who could afford it. Instead of keeping fares so high, the airlines realized that if they brought fares down, they could get more people onboard. Today, flying is no longer a luxury enjoyed by elites. It’s something that’s within nearly everyone’s grasp.

As fare competition increased, the airlines began to look toward costs so they could continue to push fares lower. Now flights were more full, and the number of flight attendants onboard shrunk to reduce costs. Airlines also worked hard to get more productivity from their flight attendants to keep costs down. The days of the glamorous airline job ended when the craving for low fares grew.

Today, most people flying domestically in coach choose their flights based on price and schedule. Until people begin choosing airlines based on product and service, even if costs more, we aren’t going to see airlines willing to go above and beyond on that side of the business. So for now, we’ll continue to hear horror stories from time to time when things go wrong.

While the news constantly reports when things go wrong, we never hear when things go right. If an airline has fewer than 7 out of 10 flights arriving on time, it’s considered terrible performance. This fall, as a result of good weather and reduced flying, airlines had some of the lowest cancellation and highest on-time numbers they’ve had in years. Yes, when bad weather rolls in, things get bad quickly. But would a smile or some peanuts really make you feel better at that point? I doubt it. Getting where you need to go as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters then.

I’m not saying the airlines are perfect. There are always things they can do to improve. But I can fly somewhere exotic once a year and domestically a few more times during the year without breaking the bank. I’d much rather be able to fly somewhere with a surly crew than not be able to fly at all.

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