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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45 Comments on "Why I’m Glad the “Glory Days” of Air Travel are Gone"

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David
Guest

How much does an advance C or J class transcon fare in 2009 cost ? Would $2,000 cover it ? And would the comfort in business today be at least as equivalent to the comfort of coach in 1962 ?

RJT
Guest
I don’t think you can’t make this so simplistic. I don’t have a choice to pay more for better service because all the big, dominant players have made that choice for me. They decided that they can make more money (theoretically) by being as big as possible and after they made that bet post deregulation and it didn’t pay off, they have all these empty seats. So their Rev Mgt systems tell them, sell cheaper to fill seats and get market share, and so the spiral of low fares started. As the revenue was pressured they tried to cut costs,… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
Crandall gave a controversial (weren’t most of them?) interview when he actually said passengers want cramped conditions and low service. His argument was grounded in their buying habits. Essentially, people will put up with a lot if it doesn’t cost too much. “We will determine maximum value based on customer spend.” No point in AA catering steak if UA offers lobster while Southwest offers peanuts at $50 less each way. No airline steak is worth $100 r/t ! I’m not sure we read the same article, though. I don’t see where Ms. Hood actually said the glamor days weren’t all… Read more »
David
Guest
Not quite sure you understood my point…. If one had to pay $2,000 in 2009 money for a transcon trip in Y in 1962, and for the same cash one can get a C or F seat in 2009, would you really choose the 1962 coach seat with 1962 coach service over the 2009 first / business class seat with 2009 first / business service ? If we choose the 2009 F seat over the 1962 Y seat, then people still have the same quality of service in 2009 potentially available to purchase as in 1962 which would then comprehensively… Read more »
Zach
Guest
I can see both sides of this issue, but I would argue that the point isn’t whether you’re eating steak or peanuts on a transcon flight. Personally, I’m too young to remember the true “glory days” of air travel. My earliest memories of flight are from the mid-80s, when you could still get a hot meal between LAX and Chicago, but otherwise, service levels were similar to what they are today. I’m of the generation and the school of thought that demands only that an airline get me from point A to point B in a timely and cost effective… Read more »
Doug Swalen
Guest
“Optimist – I don’t believe I said that Ms Hood said the glamour days weren’t all they seemed to be. She, like you, wants to see a return to the glamour days, and I’m arguing that I don’t want to see that return because it would price me out of the market.” There’s something to be said about CF’s logic. I can see it and it does make sense. But at the same time I also believe if service was what it used to be, not necessarily in terms of pampering with steaks and lobsters and flowing wine, but in… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
CF – Ok…I see your point now. We have all been conditioned to shop on price, leaving the “value” quotient, as Zach indicates, to merely arriving on time with the “extras” being at least a smile from someone at the airline we’ve paid out hard earned money to entrust with our safety. Certainly paying more today won’t guarantee better service or even meals – rather it will simply go to the carrier’s bottom line as they continue to see if they can charge for the privilege of a window shade. Zach – For someone who remembers the “glory days” part… Read more »
A
Guest
I have to admit that we are all quite lucky to live at a period in history where the world truly is much smaller than it was in the past. My spouse just booked a weekend flight to visit her sister. It’s over 2000 miles away and in a different country, but for just $400/flight she can afford to visit her on short notice and for brief periods without much financial strain. If it were 1962 (for lack of better example) she would probably only get to visit her sister once a year, if that. Checking the inflation calculator makes… Read more »
Zach
Guest
CF- out of curiosity, do European and Asian flag carriers generally use more flight attendants per flight than US legacy carriers? I only ask, because, almost without fail and regardless of flight length, European and Asian flight attendants are warm and deliver your peanuts with a smile (or, in the case of Air Dolomiti, which I flew on the 45-minute flight from MUC-PRG last week, your beverage with prosciutto, cheese, and cracker plate [!]). They still rush through the cabin, but their demeanor is pleasant, and that enhances the experience. Traveling Optimist- I do wish I’d been around during the… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
United had started scanning bags in the make-up areas of the ramp as they were separated for local versus connections and interline transfers. There was even a validity check in place to compare the number of bags checked at the curb and counters versus the ones manually scanned by the bagroom workers. Bags still got lost. Late check-in, misloads on the plane itself, missed connections, cancellations, etc but it was able to at least improve their efforts to board the bag on the first outbound flight. Scanning was also used at hubs so, Fed Ex style, if for some reason… Read more »
A
Guest

I just looked at those old TWA timetables. Wow, that’s fascinating.

JM
Guest
Interesting columns and dialogue here. A larger issue is the growing informality of society. Air travel has kept up with the times, both good and bad. Consider fashion. Gone are the days of men’s hats and ladies’ gloves. Men who attend football games no longer wear coats and ties (yes, there was a time). Women wear pants. Dungarees are now called fashion jeans now sell for $300 a pair. Perceptions of value have changed, too. Consider the Robert Crandall statement cited by The Traveling Optimist about passengers’ desires for low fares and cramped conditions in light of the public’s buying… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
Zach – Nothing wrong at all about the perspective of your generation, guy. It didn’t take me long to go from suits to khakis and polos, I can tell you that! I simply marvel consciously when I choose to wear denim on a plane and think of the days when my mother made sure I was “chu’ch ready” before even getting on so much as an interstate bus much less an airplane! I have previously argued that at least the Asian carriers do employ greater numbers of onboard staff than their American counterparts. They also remain a more paternalistic culture… Read more »
Zach
Guest

Asian carriers do seem to follow the famous Confucian notion that it is “a pleasure to welcome friends from afar.” The European FAs (Ryanair notwithstanding) seem to have a grasp on the art of positive attitude, as well.

Randy
Guest
Personally I think Southwest helped kill the good old days, but they exemplify what Crandall said. The flying public benefits from the lower fares to the detriment of the employees. While pilots were always careers, Flight Attendents really weren’t a career, but have evolved into it. Give me a two year fresh FA instead of a 30 year burned out veteran who fakes a smile. Why a US airline doesn’t hire flight attendents of two year contracts which can only be renewed twice like Virgin Atlantic, I don’t know. I’m sure age discrimination charges would pop up, but maybe they… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist

Seems we all, to a degree, sympathize with the onboard staff of most carriers. Less staff, short layovers, long duty days and no real “service” left to provide and occupy their time as much as ours.

At the same time, none of us are willing to pay even so much as a “Staff Surcharge” on top of the fare we chose to guarantee even one additional cabin worker on board.

We get what we pay for.

baproden
Member

The non LCC carriers in Europe do indeed have higher staffing on their aircraft. I have flown on Eastern Airways Saab 2000’s and VLM F50’s staffed with 2 cabin crew and they do a light meal service with a coffee & tea service on flights less than 1 hour in duration. Austrian had 3 cabin crew on a 737 with a meal service in the coach cabin however the flight was very empty so getting finished was no problem whatsoever.

Dan
Member

You say: “I’d much rather be able to fly somewhere with a surly crew than not be able to fly at all.”

But it doesn’t cost a penny for a stewardess not to be “surly.”

Smiles are free. They just need to be encouraged by management.

THAT’S where airlines have gone wrong.

The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
I’m not a union negotiator, Dan, but the general mindset of the flight attendant workforce is that it’s been quite some time since they were treated fairly by management. In Ms. Hood’s article she cites the threat of discipline if they did not properly place the company logo on the meal tray. Weight checks were ruled sexist and inhuman some years back, allowing flight attendants to let their bodies age (go?) naturally. UA’s crews in particular have felt left out since the mid-90s during the employee stock ownership program that failed miserably. The AA crews walked off the job during… Read more »
Darkwater
Guest
JM brings up some good points, but I think that it is precisely because air travel is not a durable good that people aren’t willing to spend money on it. You can still buy high-quality appliances that last as long as (or longer than) white goods have in the past; you can still buy shoes expensive enough and durable enough to make having them repaired worthwhile (I pass two cobblers on my way to the train each morning). When you buy your flight to LAX, however, you’re not investing in something that’s going to last for 2, 5, or 10… Read more »
Dan
Member

@ Optimist

I agree with you. My criticism was not directed solely toward flight attendants, but management as well; if management really cared about encouraging cabin crew to treat passengers with respecy, they would treat cabin crew with respect as well. The real issue is that airline management does not care about anyone these days, passenger OR employee.

When money is tight, a smile goes a long way, and management has not smiled at ANYONE lately.

David SF eastbay
Member
I guess being over 50 I’m old school and was brought up to be nice and treat people with respect. I’ve worked in retail and for an airline in the past and no matter what management did, what problems you had at home, how you may feel inside, etc that no matter what you always treated the people who paid your salary kindly, with respect and did the best job you can. In the airline business the passengers pay your salary just as they do everyone else that works for the airline (or any job). Now a days employees tend… Read more »
daren_siddall
Member
I agree with CF’s argument here, travel has never been cheaper and more accessible to the average person and this has only been possible by facing some stark realities. Today we can travel further for less and take short trips to see friends and family for weekends, something that the previous generations would not have thought possible. Clearly for this luxury we have to accept some sacrifices. There are also some environmental issues that we will have deal with as with all our consumption choices. The fact that airlines achieve this balancing act with so few accidents is also something… Read more »
spiguy88
Member

For the earlier posters, TWA and not AA first offered Comfort Class in coach by removing seats. Sure AA removed it because they were losing money, but UA has Economy Plus and charges for it.

To bad the attitudes all around weren’t more pleasant. And I’d rather have TWA back than deal with either AA or UA.

Darkwater
Guest
Comfort Class and “More Room Throughout Coach” were separate, but very much real, initiatives started by two different companies. AA introducted “more room throughout coach” in the late 90’s, before it bought TWA (perhaps in response to UA’s first iteration of E+?). AA had already determined that “more room throughout coach” wasn’t working by the time they bought TWA. (I don’t think that they got around to removing seats from all of their planes before they started putting them back in.) TWA itself had determined that on some routes (Florida, LAX, LAS, and TLV come to mind) Comfort Class meant… Read more »
Axel Sarki
Guest

new york times!? i remeber reading this in the new yorker…

Sriram
Guest
Cranky, I agree with your assessment except for one item – that we should somehow expect surly service as a consequence of wanting to travel cheaply. Personally, I don’t care about not getting a meal (airline food is horrible anyway), fine bone china coffee cups, or sitting in more cramped quarters than we used to get 20 years ago. What does bother me is the truly dismal attitude of too many airline employees today. A desk agent once yelled (and I do mean, yelled) at my wife because she stepped too close to the counter before her name was called… Read more »
Harry
Guest

Cranky- I agree with you up to a point. While I agree that deregulation has caused a mad rush to find the lowest fare available, I do agree with Ann Hood to an extent. I really do not think that it is beyond the airlines to provide cheerful service, on time scheduling and clean planes. I realize that the days of glamorous transportation is over, as you pointed out so astutely in your post. However, I do not think that it is beyond the airlines, no matter what fare charged, to provide those three basic pillars I mentioned above.

The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
Harry and Sriram – Firstly let me say I do not defend or even accept surly attitudes among service workers in any industry – airline, hotel, restaurant, retail, medical or even legal. I say instead that I understand it and, in line with Cranky to a degree, I accept it sometimes as inevitable for the sake of purchasing the product or service I need. From BS high-school jobs in fast food and retail all the way to hotels, airlines and retail again, I’ve come to expect that every customer will not always have good manners or not try to get… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
The Virtual Airline Harry – In more direct response to “The Three Pillars” let’s examine Qantas’ operations at LAX, the single most profitable market for that airline according to their own internal survey. I speculate that the only employees Qantas has on the ground in Los Angeles are the station manager and their field sales team. Outside of that, American does the ticketing and ground handling for the Sydney flights while I believe Hallmark Aviation handles the work at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Other contractors come in to play for fueling, catering, cleaning and maintenance. In short, you have to… Read more »
Harry
Guest
The Traveling Optimist- Look, I agree with your points completely, and I know that in a free, deregulated market offering cheap fares, Airlines cannot afford to provide many of the things that Ann Hood described. However, I still will argue that airlines can provide my three pillars. You mentioned in your post about Qantas’s operation at LAX. I recognize that in many places, airlines now contract out most of the basic ground services to separate contractors, however that does NOT stop them from making sure that they offer those three basic pillars I talked about. It doesn’t cost them a… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist
Harry – We are in complete agreement with each other. Good service, clean planes and dependable schedules are all basics that any airline should expect and deliver from its operations and workers. I’m hoping to go to New Zealand this year. Like Cranky I absolutely love Air New Zealand’s product. As an AAdvantage member, however, I’ll probably end up on Qantas (not, by any means a shabby second) simply for the miles and because American flies to neither location. So, I’ll put up with hit-or-miss service on AA to LA then look forward to a wonderful 12-hour flight on an… Read more »
Jim DeProspero
Guest
I flew often in my youth in the late 60’s and 70’s only because my mother worked for Mohawk Airlines. I have wonderful memories of a bygone era. The pilot of a National Airlines Sun King (half full) 747 flight from JFK to MIA actually bringing me plastic “wings” and personally affixing them to my lapel. Go figure, a wide body on a domestic route. I was in awe as an 8 year old and will never forget it. Playing cards with the airline logo, great meals etc… It was truly an “event” to fly. The personal touch is long… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
The Traveling Optimist

Jim – Right there with ya, man! I remember Bonanza, Mohawk, Hughes Air West, Ozark, Southern,Texas International and National Airlines, each with a unique character not likely to be seen again. Long live Braniff and the end of the plain plane!

PAC
Guest
As a former employee of TWA and proud of it, yes – those were wonderful times in the airline industry. Sterling silver tea service, china plates, fantastic meals on board in coach and out-of-this-world meals in first class. You had to dress appropriately (business attire) to travel. Never a thought of anything less. In fact, my boss insisted that any time you went to the airport, whether for business or just to pick someone up, you may not be in anything other than business attire! I remember one time going spur of the moment in dress slacks and sweater and… Read more »
Devesh Agarwal
Guest
Sorry, but I cannot accept the logic that cheaper prices automatically implies lousy service. By that measure Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Virgin, Cathay, should not exist as airlines. Forget the fact that Singapore Airlines with one of the best on board services, is also one the world’s most profitable. Stores like Nordstrom who are renowned for their service also should not exist. You consider an airline getting 70% accuracy as good. A Boeing 747 has 4 million components. At 30% inaccuracy that would be 1.2 million parts failing. I doubt you would be willing to get in to that aircraft. Nor… Read more »
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[…] were catching up on our reading when we discovered a comment made by the Cranky Flier on the subject of an Op-Ed piece from the New York Times about the […]

Devesh Agarwal
Guest
CF, Let us compare. If you were to take ASEAN carriers SQ, CX, TG, MH, the majority of their flights both in terms of numbers and passengers are in the 2~4 hour flight times. Fares between Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur are extremely competitive. I would put them on par with US fares, or probably cheaper. Let us not forget the low cost carriers Air Asia, Tiger, IndiGo, SpiceJet and others who are giving the mainline carriers a run for their money. In India, the average flight is 1:30 weighted average, and fares are in the $60 range. Yet,… Read more »
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