It may sound mythical, like unicorns or pots of gold at the end of rainbows to those born after around 1990, but it’s true: flying was once pleasurable. Before the abuse; the stripping, radiating, berating. It was a fairly simple process to board a plane. Before the luggage limitations and federal laws and armed marshals, passengers were treated like humans. Humans who enjoyed not only inalienable rights, but even perks for spending large sums of money with the companies that own the planes. Many years ago, you could have a few drinks, stretch out a bit in seats that were twice the size of the kiddie chairs today and travel to your destination without being harangued, questioned and debased.
Those days of course are long gone and there is no sign of anything like comfort or respect returning to airlines. Yet more people than ever are flying and over all it is the cheapest time in history to board a plane and soar supersonically to your favourite vacation spot or big business meeting.
How come? Part of the reason that prices are so cheap is that there are so many airlines competing for your ticket. This competition though instead of creating a buyers market has created a sellers world of promising more, much more, than the service they can actually supply and getting you aboard by hook or by crook. Without harking down too hard on the airlines themselves, we’ve decided that it’s time to look into the tricks and trades of the airline industry.
The Baggage Crunch
The number one complaint today among domestic flyers are limitations and fees for ‘extra’ baggage. Extra meaning anything larger than a duffel bag. Paying anything from 25 to a 100 dollars for a checked suitcase has created a culture of everyone trying stuff their week’s worth of clothing and supplies into the overhead bins. Is it bad to pack lighter? No. Is it bad when everyone does? Well…
The baggage crunch has become an obsession with frequent flyers who line up early and wait in the two-hour cues so that they can cram multi-tiered rolling wardrobes into three or four times the space allotted to a single passenger long before the casual traveller boards with their single bag. Baggage rules are so misleading that the federal governments have handed out heavy fines to airlines all over the world.
Once there were just two seating categories: first class or economy, and you pretty much knew what you were getting with either. Today though, you can find seat classifications that read like a poll of your socio-economic standing. First class of course remains the elite, business comes comfortably just behind, but then a multitude of descriptions gap the rare air from the hoi polloi. With a cursory scan of sites dedicated to solving the mystery of finding a decent seat, I came upon terms like business suite, premium economy, smile class, comfort plus and something called true economy. I shudder to think.
Playing the Fare Game
No other service has the kind of fluctuating prices that airline seats do. You can be sitting next to a person, receiving the same service to the same destination who has paid half, a quarter, or some other fraction of what you shelled out. Airlines use a complicated matrix called yield management to estimate how much and to whom they can sell seats, which is as impossible to predict as roulette. In addition to selling seats at random prices, the trend now is to brand the level at which you can buy a seat. For instance, Delta sells the same seat under different prices as Basic Economy which locks you into what they give you with no possibility of change in the future. Main Cabin, for which you can pick your own seat with countless restrictions and Delta Comfort, where you can kind of choose the particular seat you like best. Same seat, three different prices.
Everyone who has ever bought a ticket online has seen the fare go up when they get to the pay page. Certain taxes are unavoidable and essentially up-front: the U.S. excise tax, immigration and naturalization, passenger facility, and the 9/11 security charge. What you can put a price on is the direct ticketing fee, meaning you bought a ticket from the actual airline. Award fees, money charged to redeem the points that are supposed to add up to a free ticket. Carry on bag fees, just in case you thought you could get out of paying for checked baggage they tacked this one on. And lastly, the bathroom fee.
Samoa Airline has instituted a Pay What You Weigh scheme. Charging passengers by the kilo they supposedly offset the cost of additional fuel used up by the more portly passengers, no discount mentioned for the rail thin. British design firm Seymourpowell has created the Morph Seat or sectional seating that can be adjusted in width. for a few bucks more you can have a few extra inches which of course means that your row partners will be denied those precious increments of personal space. The most daunting, space-saving idea though in the gloomy future of airline travel is the face-to-face seating arrangement. This would have every other row turned toward one another. The design would have passengers intermingling legs and feet while staring into the face of a stranger for the extent of the flight.
It Ain’t All Bad, Is It?
There have been some very positive developments in flying in recent years:
Domestic flights still offer drink and snack services. As a way to reduce costs though, some airlines give you the option to spend the 5-7 bucks; could be an benefit or a downside, depending on what side of the coin you’re on. On-board entertainment has evolved leaps and bounds from the single projected movie on the cabin wall days, some even up to Netflix standards. WiFi is no longer a dream of the future, but a reality that you can take advantage of (for a price of course).
There is hope. There will be better days and better flights. Ultimately, we just have to learn how to read between the lines and choose what works out best for us. Until then: sit back, relax, and enjoy your flights.