See You Next Tuesday: Air Travel

See You Next Tuesday is one of the Boomstick's regular columns. On select Tuesdays, I bring you  laughable scumbags, idiots, jerks, lamentable social institutions, and shit I just plain old hate for your reading and reviling pleasure. If you don't get the name, visit your nearest middle school playground and ask the first kid you see. You can read previous editions here. Today's subject is:

                     AIRPLANE TRAVEL                     

The first thing that Mad Men makes me nostalgic for are the clothes  shouldn't we still wear hats? All of us?? The second thing I pine for is the acceptable mandatory daytime office drinking. The third thing I lust after is the unbelievably different culture of plane travel.

Recently, stuck in the second-to-last row of a giant plane, where the man in front of me fully reclined for the duration of our nine hour flight, including during meals, including during meals where he sat up and leaned forward over his meal to eat his meal but left his seat all the way down into my lap, I thought of how Don Draper and Roger Sterling traveled to Hawaii with cigars and Old Fashioneds and beautiful hand-carved roasts.

It's no secret that airplane culture used to be more glamorous. Pan Am planes had a full kitchen where stewardesses would prepare filet mignon and speciality cocktails. Seats on long flights, already larger in width by two-thirds, reclined fully. Real champagne bottles were popped.
Seats were 2/3 wider in the 1950s than today. 
Of course, air travel was also much rarer and more expensive; fares were about double what they are today, so it was cost-prohibitive for most people to fly. Air travel was also much less safe. Marc Llewellyn writes:
Statistically, you have a much better chance of surviving a flight now than you did in the 1950s and 1960s, when crash landings, injuries from turbulence and midair collisions were much more common. There were sharp edges in the cabins, glass partitions, inferior seat belts, worse pilot training, and inherent mechanical problems. 
But becoming safer, more common, and more egalitarian has come at it's own steep price. Air travel is miserable and each modicum of pleasure/comfort/ relief comes at a literal price. Over the last few decades, air travel has become a race to the bottom; flying is uncomfortable, unfair, disorganized, and just plain gross.

And it's no secret: airlines are aware of it, consumer blogs are aware of it, travelers are aware of it.  And yet, there's no reprieve from the downward spiral of discomfort. "Enjoyable" travel, like Delta One's full-recline cabin, is prohibitively expensive for the average traveler. The big travel trend, if any, is toward budget airlines: cheaper flights with a la carte amenities. Budget airlines are slicing travel fare by itemizing every little perk: you want an assigned seat? You want refreshments on board? You want to  God forbid — check luggage? All surcharges.

The internet is full of laments about the pathetic and worsening situation of passenger air travel. As the world gets smaller and plane travel becomes more frequent and, ostensibly, more affordable, shouldn't the trajectory of comfort climb in the direction of the consumer? Since the 1960s, cars have become not only dramatically safer but are now outfitted with standards like air conditioning, seat warmers, and satellite radio.

But airlines continue to hack away almost all basic comforts. Beleaguered exposés have fallen on deaf ears. In 2014, The New Yorker published a piece called "Why the Airlines Want You to Suffer," concluding that the massive profits major airlines rake in from baggage fees, change fees, overselling tickets, and cramming more seats into planes provide little incentive for them to cater to the consumer.

The lack of airline choice is also a major factor in this problem. Limited competition means less incentive for airlines to institute consumer-friendly policies.
Most of us have at one time or another sworn to ourselves that we will “never” again fly on one airline or another, only to discover that there are very few airlines one can switch to and that they all seem dismal in their own way.
So says Matthew Yglesias in his 2017 Vox article, "Why Flying in America Keeps Getting More Miserable, Explained." The across-the-board mediocrity, Yglesias explains, is a result of the dwindling competition in the sky. Airline costs are driven entirely by the cost to fly between two destinations, plus staff on the plane. When demand for a particular route drops, the airline can switch to a smaller plane or cancel routes. But when demand for all routes drops, such as after 9/11, the airlines don't have many options. Following 9/11, airlines declared bankruptcy, which led to mass consolidation, which led to fewer airlines, which led to less competition.
TWA was the first to fall in late 2001, having done bankruptcy reorganizations twice already in the ’90s and calling it quits shortly after 9/11 to be bought by American. Northwest was absorbed into Delta. US Air was bought by a financially healthy low-cost upstart called America West, which then adopted the US Air name.   
American Airlines was then bought out of bankruptcy by the new US Air, which promptly rebranded itself American. Midwest went bankrupt and was absorbed by Frontier. Southwest continued its steady growth, including by an acquisition of the then-bankrupt AirTran.   
The result is a new paradigm in which these big four airlines control more than 80 percent of the American passenger market....
Yglesias doesn't leave it there; he's smarter and has more data than I do, so I recommend reading his entire article. Ultimately, he concludes that part of the problem is us: at the end of the day, consumers prefer "cheap and safe to pleasant."
Airport lounge? Living room? NO, THIS IS ON A DAMN PLANE, 1960s
Megan McArdle at Bloomberg doubles down on this conclusion:
Ultimately, the reason airlines cram us into tiny seats and upcharge for everything is that we're out there on Expedia and Kayak, shopping on exactly one dimension: the price of the flight. To win business, airlines have to deliver the absolute lowest fare. And the way to do that is . . . to cram us into tiny seats and upcharge for everything. If American consumers were willing to pay more for a better experience, they'd deliver it. We're not, and they don't.
So, is it true? Is it our fault? I know that I travel a lot — averaging almost a flight per week — but I've never purchased a first class ticket with my own money. If we really wanted an improved experience, we could splurge on first class; instead, we sit in the back for cheap and complain about the seat-induced sciatica and the $12 tiny wines and arrive at our destination at exactly the same time as the elites upfront.

But even first class isn't what it used to be. Airlines advertise first class' enviable amenities, but things like horizontal beds and free drinks used to come standard. Frankly, though it's always a joy to sit up front, the tray tables are still tiny, the drinks are identical to those in coach, and the bathroom is the same absurd phone booth the plebeians squat over in the back. When first class translates into three free chardonnays and two inches of leg room, is it really worth an extra $800? That's not rhetorical. I will tell you. No. No it is not. It is nice, but it is not worth it.

I depressed myself writing this, so I really wanted to end on a positive note about how air travel is improving in certain ways, such as cabin upgrades, safety, and consumer protections. BUT THEN I REMEMBERED THIS IS A SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY and also the future is pretty bleak. Despite the ubiquitous and very public tirades against air travel, airline C-suites are deluded enough to think that consumer travel experience is improving. And The Points Guy, who knows what he's talking about, predicts decreasing loyalty perks such as devalued airline mileage and the increasing prevalence of budget carriers, sub-economy seating, and basics sold a la carte. 

Overall, airlines are moving away from customer comfort and satisfaction, and they don't even know it. For the foreseeable future, those of us unwilling to pay thousands of dollars to upgrade to a marginally-improved first class seat will be stuck  literally  in a shrinking seat. Airlines: I'll see you next Tuesday.

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