Update, 6:45 p.m.: On the very afternoon this story was being published, American Airlines announced a nationwide grounding of flights because of a computer error, massively inconveniencing passengers around the country and sparking a surge of airline rage. In a sense, bad timing, but in a larger sense, an excellent opportunity to step back and take a look at the big-picture success of the contemporary airline.
Thanks to a visit to my in-laws in Texas, a trip to San Francisco to speak on a panel, and some poor scheduling, I’ve taken six airplane flights in the past seven days. It was bit grueling, but not nearly as grueling as reading the posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) by James Fallows at the Atlantic in which he and an array of readers dissect the failings of contemporary American aviation in general and United Airlines in particular. Flying as I was on United for all six legs, I reached the opposite conclusion: American commercial passenger aviation is pretty amazing. It’s time for the flying public to cut the airlines some slack and show a little appreciation.
First the basics. A modern commercial jet moves upward of a 200 people through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, leaving all alternative means of long-distance transportation in the dust. It’s instructive every once in a while to be seated next to a little kid on his first flight and watch the look of amazement on his face as he gazes out the window. American travelers fly about 10 billion more passenger-miles than we did a decade ago despite a weak economy. What’s more, the price per mile flown has fallen immensely over the past 30 years. If you’re willing to pay late-’70s prices for your air travel—which is to say double present-day fares—you can book yourself into business class and enjoy a luxury travel experience.
Air travel is fantastically safe. Over the past five years, there’s been exactly one fatal crash of a U.S. airplane. In the 1999-2008 period there was roughly one fatality per 10 billion miles traveled. The death rate for car travel was 72 times higher. Think about what kind of discount you’d want if a gate attendant asked you to swap your flight for one leaving five minutes later that’s only half as safe as the original plane. Then double that risk again. Then again. Then again. Then twice more. That plane’s still safer than driving an equivalent distance.
Alternatively, think about what an incredible hassle driving would be if we tried to make it as safe as air travel. You’d need stiff penalties for minor everyday errors, and traffic would have to slow down to a point of near-uselessness.
Meanwhile a few decades after deregulation wrecked the airlines’ business models, they seem to be figuring things out. People complain about airlines unbundling services (that is, making you pay for a snack), but it makes a ton of sense. A frugal person who doesn’t inflict extra weight and fuel costs on the flight with checked bags and brings his own pretzels can fly for cheap. Those with pressing needs to transport luggage or get boozy mid-flight subsidize the cheapskates. Airlines increasingly offer special rows (United’s Economy Plus, Delta’s Economy Comfort, etc.) where an upcharge gets you standard coach service but extra legroom. For the long-legged of the world, it’s a good deal. And particularly in a world where men earn more than women, and tall people earn more than short people, it’s much sounder business practice than spreading the legroom and the costs evenly.
An extra legroom seat plus an in-flight purchase of a widely available Wi-Fi or DirectTV package is cheaper than a coach ticket of a generation ago, and offers an in-flight entertainment experience that’s far superior to anything that was technologically possible at that time. Even the decline of the hot meal is change for the better, since those meals were never any good. When packing for a long trip—whether by car, bus, train, plane, or whatever—what you want is some snack foods. And today’s airlines intelligently sell them to passengers who didn’t pack. You wouldn’t want to subsist long on the processed cheese, crackers, chips and salsa, raisins, applesauce, beef jerky, and pretzels sold by flight attendants, but these are perfectly adequate munchies for while you’re in transit and a huge improvement on the microwaved chicken of yore.
But what about the delays, you ask? Delays suck. And they occur on almost 20 percent of flights. But as a person who, whatever his other flaws, is extremely punctual, I’m here to tell you that you’re often late too.
During my travels last week, I had people show up late for a breakfast meeting and for a lunch. Two co-panelists were late for our panel, which made the whole panel start late, which probably made some audience members late for other things they were doing. Slate’s Monday editorial meeting started late.
Of course when you’re late, you have an excuse. Your earlier meeting started late. You were stuck in traffic. The baby was sick. Airlines have these problems too! It gets unexpectedly icy. Key personnel get sick or delayed in traffic. The difference between you and the airline is that the airline has to report its on-time statistics to the government while you get to just make excuses. When you can show me that you’re showing up on time 90 percent of the time, then complain.
Otherwise, sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight while pondering the fact that America’s airlines have struggled through a very difficult period and emerged offering a far superior value to anything they offered in the past.
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