Not quite horrible enough
Posted by aogWednesday, 06 August 2008 at 09:20 TrackBack Ping URL

So there’s yet another commercial flying is horrible article getting cited on the Inter-Tubes. It makes me think of the famous quote, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”. After all, if the flights are packed, how intolerable can it be? The best comment I saw on the matter was the claim that flying is heavily dominated by the “once a year” crew and the complaints by the business traveler. The former will have a far higher tolerance for abuse in exchange for cheap which spills over on the latter.

Personally, we now avoid commercial airlines whenever possible, by not traveling or only going places with in reach of car travel. But we seem to be in the minority on that.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
cjm Wednesday, 06 August 2008 at 16:17

same here (driving instead of flying). if i never fly again i won’t miss it a bit. and i am fully aware of the accident statistics for both types of travel.

Hey Skipper Wednesday, 06 August 2008 at 17:33

I guess it depends on how far you want to go, and how much time you are willing to spend getting there.

And, of course, driving is not without its own hassles — hitting a city at the wrong time isn’t something that, for most people, constitutes a happy place.

Fundamentally, though, the vast majority of travelers will pick the absolute cheapest ticket over a more expensive one with greater comfort.

The state of airline travel is precisely what consumers pay for. Absent, of course, the added layer of TSA misery.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 06 August 2008 at 17:55

Yes, which is why I expect the situation to continue for the forseeable future. As for the TSA, we voted those guys back in to office, didn’t we? More than once for many of them.

Harry Eagar Wednesday, 06 August 2008 at 18:46

I flew a fair amount in the ‘80s, not at all in the ‘90s, and in the ‘00s I make at least one month-long circuit of the eastern states each year.

I have never had more than minor irritations with TSA, though I’ve heard stories, but overall I find flying no worse now than 25 years ago. The disappearance of airline food has been a big plus.

cjm Wednesday, 06 August 2008 at 18:51

there is an excellent movie from the early 70’s (“The Parallax View”) that shows a character walking onto a plane and buying his ticket from the stewardess. different world indeed.

Brad S Thursday, 07 August 2008 at 09:53

I am comparing flights to San Diego on Southwest and Frontier with a bus trip on Greyhound. Apparently, Greyhound has no problems passing on fuel costs, as a round trip to San Diego from Denver is $60 more than a round trip on either SWA or Frontier.

The airlines deserve all the problems they get, based upon that.

Hey Skipper Friday, 08 August 2008 at 03:30

Brad S:

It is worth noting that modern airliners get at least 80 seat miles per gallon of jet fuel, and often fly darn near to full.

A bus might get about the same seat-mileage, but I’ll bet their revenue miles are a lot lower.

Ali Choudhury Friday, 08 August 2008 at 08:19

I like rail travel best for inter-city travel. More scenic than air, faster and cheaper than road, you can get work done and not spend hours in check-in and security queues.

cjm Friday, 08 August 2008 at 08:23

bus trips have their own “issues” these days

David Cohen Friday, 08 August 2008 at 08:29

As luck would have it, I’m off to S.Ca. (Anaheim) today for a conference. There must be a D. Cohen on a check list somewhere, because they never let me check in online but insist that I show ID to an actual person. That and taking off my shoes is annoying, but it’s hardly a serious infraction of my liberty. Even the extra-specal searches aren’t that big a deal.

I’ve never missed a plane because of TSA. And there’s one flight I think I made only because TSA pulled me to the front of the line.

On the other hand, I don’t think that it accomplishes much and it’s one of those things that, once you start doing it, you can never stop.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 08 August 2008 at 08:59

Mr Choudhury;

Rail travel, despite OJ’s fantasies, is rarely viable in the USA unless you’re on the north east coast. We’ve tried it multiple times but it hasn’t worked out. We rarely take the train to the nearest big city because it runs only once a day at a not good time and is usually 1-3 hours late (it’s been so late that if we had driven we would have been to the city before we finished waiting for it to arrive).

Mr. Cohen;

If you want to experience the TSA in its glory, go to San Jose, CA and return. The last time I did that the security line was out and double back through the parking garage. It’s just gotten longer every time I have been there over the last 4 or 5 years — there doesn’t seem to be much learning going on. That’s an hour or so of my life taken away, which I consider an impact. And, as you note, it’s pretty much for nothing except making certain politicians feel good about themselves.

cjm Friday, 08 August 2008 at 10:20

dc: you will be within 20 miles of where i live:)

Hey Skipper Friday, 08 August 2008 at 18:02


I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll probably be in SoCal in early October.

cjm Friday, 08 August 2008 at 21:45

skipper: i look forward to hearing all your best stories :) i work next to LAX (can see the freight side and the space restaurant from my office) and live 3 miles from john wayne, so i have most of coastal socal covered.

Harry Eagar Friday, 08 August 2008 at 22:59

Last intercity train ride I took was Hicksville to Manhattan, which was sort of like being in a blender. Yecch.

Hey Skipper Saturday, 09 August 2008 at 00:06


shoot your email address to

Whenever I go to LA, I jump seat on FedEx, so I’d be in the neighborhood.

David Cohen Saturday, 09 August 2008 at 02:03

So, your basic cross country flight. I think I’m going to start a new airline with the business model of sedating the passengers, stacking them like cordwood and then waking them up at their final destination.

American was late pushing back at DFW, with a plane with a bad APU, and thus no air conditioning but, as I say, par for the course. As I looked at my fellow passengers, packed in like sardines with the front of someone else’s seat 5 inches in front of them, I did think about frogs and hot water.

cjm: I’m at a conference and my time is not my own, but if you can make it to Walt’s neighborhood Sunday afternoon, let me know.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 09 August 2008 at 11:08

Mr. Cohen;

What about death spirals? The worse the experience, the lower the price expected by the majority of passengers, which leads to worse service …

Hey Skipper Saturday, 09 August 2008 at 12:15

In the late 90s, American responded to leg room complaints by removing something like five rows of seats from coach.

They loudly trumpeted their new, far more comfortable, service.

Of course, the tickets got a little more expensive, something just over 10%.

A price differential far too few people were willing to pay.

So, AOG, the airlines are delivering precisely what people are willing to pay. People overwhelmingly buy the cheapest ticket available, then whine louder than a jet engine about how awful the service is.

You get what you pay for.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 09 August 2008 at 13:56

Yes, wasn’t that my point in the original post?

Hey Skipper Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 02:50


I just thought it worth noting the proof came about 10 years ago.

Harry Eagar Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 03:08

I note, with some amusement, that the commoditization of air travel works like the commoditization of labor or news.

The market dictates as its admirers expect it to do but somehow the customers are dissatisfied.

cjm Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 03:57

the problem for the air travel industry is they have a pretty high cost basis for doing business, and that was before fuel costs shot up. it’s shocking how little technological prgress there’s been in the last 50 years, re planes. they still only fly at the same speed, maybe a little better fuel economy, a few nice toys for the pilots, but nothing revolutionary. maybe the private space travel companies will produce a few break throughs for passenger travel.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 09:06

Mr. Eagar;

The market dictates as its admirers expect it to do but somehow the customers are dissatisfied

You still miss the point of my original post and Skipper’s response, which is that the crowded state of airplanes indicates a lack of dissatisfaction. We both agree that the market is giving customers, by and large, what they want. It is only a small subset of self selected effete snobs who complain. Just like people who don’t like locally produced shoes.


There has been a lot of technological progress in commercial air travel in the last 50 years. I am sure Skipper could go on endlessly about it. Three that spring to mind are

  • Increased safety and crash survivability
  • Efficiency
  • Automation, in terms of ILS and auto-pilots.

I am sure there are many others.

erp Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 11:03

The most important technological advance in the airline industry is the paucity of airplane crashes. In the bad old days that wasn’t always the case. Everything else pales into insignificance when the plane lands safely, the narrow seats, lost baggage, etc. are forgotten.

cjm Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 12:43

those are incremental gains. here are some things i would call revolutionary (or disruptive):

  1. ability for any subsection to detach (in case of catastrophic failure) and survive
  2. hypersonic speeds at same or better fuel efficiency
Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 13:29

I am waiting for orbital laser powered aircraft.

Harry Eagar Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 15:46

I think my post stated my own lack of dissatisfaction, but there is the little problem of 0 net profits. I suspect SOMEBODY is unsatisfied.

I am pleased to have my travel paid for, in part, by suckers who believe in the infallibility of markets, but I’m not counting on that lasting forever.

I don’t think the crowded state of planes demonstrates, in itself, a level of satisfaction among the customers, either. When the president of one of the dozen biggest airlines invited himself to sit down with me for a couple hours last week, it wasn’t because he wanted to brag about how satisfied his customers were.

David Cohen Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 17:32

Harry: Just because I don’t like the market solution doesn’t mean that I’m right or the market is wrong. Back when prices were regulated, flying was a pleasant, up-scale experience for the few people who could afford it. Now it’s a bus. I may regret the days of elegant flying, but I still fly. I have no doubt that resources are more efficiently allocated now than before.

The market solution is not the same thing as the best solution for me, which is a mistake that market-deniers are always making.

Another thing about flying is that the price discrimination is so refined that we have much less consumer surplus than we’re used to. Consumer surplus is the difference between the price paid and the price we’d be willing to pay, and Americans are used to getting quite a bit of consumer surplus with our purchases. Airline tickets give us the rare experience of the price being a close run thing with what we’d be willing to pay.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 18:49

I don’t think the crowded state of planes demonstrates, in itself, a level of satisfaction among the customers, either.

Well, the nature of reality and language is what demonstrates, or guarantees, a level of satisfaction among airline customers. It may be positive, or it may be negative, but it is certainly at some level.

What the crowded state of planes demonstrates is that the level is high enough (or insufficiently low enough, depending on your glass POV) for people to buy tickets.

One might also note that profit level varies between airlines, and not all airlines are experiencing zero profits.

I suspect SOMEBODY is unsatisfied

Have you ever encountered a situation of which this would not be an accurate description? I haven’t. Therefore I am not clear on why this would be of significance.

Even believers in infallible markets (of which I am not one) don’t hold that markets deliver universal satisfaction, or even any at all. They believe that markets deliver more satisfaction (or equivalently) less dissatisfaction overall than alternative mechanisms.

Hey Skipper Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 18:51

I am sure Skipper could go on endlessly about it.

Gee, thanks, AOG.

I think.

Here’s a rough list:

Efficiency. The fuel required for a DC-9 to carry 100 passengers is the same as an A-320 carrying 150.

Reliability. Full authority digital engine control (FADEC), along with greatly improved manufacturing techniques, means engines almost never even hiccup, let alone fail.

Flight Management Systems. Basically, these mean the airplane knows about the phase of flight, and allows the aircrew to take time during cruise, where there is plenty of time to be had, to program the FMS for the airfield configuration. This puts the crew more in the position of monitoring aircraft performance in the terminal environment, rather than having to get into the weeds of actually making it happen.

Windshear alert and guidance systems. In the bad old days, there was no such thing, which meant thunderstorms were getting lots of kills. In the much less bad, not so old days, improved training and systems made windshear alerts much faster, and provided, along with much higher thrust engines, flight director guidance to maximize aircraft performance. Unfortunately, this made the airplane its own test probe. My airplane now has predictive windshear — pulse doppler radar analyzes the movement of dust particles (!); if it determines there is an area of likely windshear, it displays that area so as to avoid entering it in the first place.

GPS. Now Betty tells us when we are approaching a runway, whether during taxi or flight, and which one it is.

SATCOM. Now, no matter where we are, we can talk directly to our Global Operations Control for updates on weather, maintenance issues, etc.

Electronic Flight Bag. Notebook sized terminal for each pilot that pretty much contains ALL the information for the entire air system; it is brilliantly thought out. Perhaps the biggest advantage is how much easier it makes navigating while taxiing.

Vastly improved training and simulation. Our simulators are so realistic that they put vehicle traffic not only on the airfield, but even surrounding roads.

Automated Data Services and Controller to Pilot Data Link Communication …

Oh, never mind. I’m going on endlessly.


There are several reasons customers are dissatisfied, but primary among them is expecting a free lunch. That can scarcely be considered a market failure.

The profit problem is largely the consequence of the internet: eliminating the the time investment in finding the lowest fare and substantially reducing the need for high yield business travel. Most of the unions went into denial — when revenue per seat mile drops by 23%, something has to give. Companies had to focus on maintaining a revenue stream, which meant keeping capacity higher than would be “rational”, which was driven by irrational union behavior. Additionally, low cost carriers cherry picked high travel routes (try taking Southwest from Rochester NY to Milwaukee, sometime), which gave them a yield profile far more favorable than the legacy carriers, which are the ones that actually serve most of the US.

Extortionate taxes don’t help matters, either.

Harry Eagar Sunday, 10 August 2008 at 20:21

Well, I think airlines are a special case of dissatisfaction for investors. They’re like the Cubs — had a bad century.

The planes are full for several reasons but the big one this summer is that there are a lot fewer in the air. For reasons David and Skipper mentioned, more people got used to flying than walking. They haven’t downsized their expectations as fast as the airlines have downsized flights.

The fact that some — well, OK, one — airline is making profits is not a feature. It’s the bug. The reason it can do that is that it exploits the network without supporting it. I’ve said it before, so I won’t go into detail, but the value of a transportation network is its networkness. The market has no idea how to value the net, so it treats its value as 0, it cannot be monetized. Yet the net is the value.

Once you set up a system that screwy, you can hardly claim surprise or dismay at the results.

Ali Choudhury Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 04:30

The poor state of cattle class is probably due to airlines wanting customers to continue paying the excessive premium for business and first-class travel. The same phenomenom was observed with French rail travel in the eighteenth century. If you make things too nice back there, why would anyone upgrade?

cjm Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 09:10

that only works when you have a monopoly. i think aog and skipper are right, there are plenty of people who aren’t really all that put off by flying under what i consider onerous conditions. it used to be such fun; jets killed all that.

Hey Skipper Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 18:07

The poor state of cattle class …

But really, how poor is it? Seat widths have not changed one iota. And, as far as I know, neither has seat pitch except for the one time American tried increasing it, only to take a beating in the market.

Certainly the perception things have gotten worse is there. I suspect, though, it is due to two things: since deregulation, many more people are flying — a full airplane makes coach class seats much smaller than does a half full airplane. Somehow, I don’t see a huge increase in flying as a market failure.

The second reason could be carry-on luggage. The more of it there is, the more annoying the whole loading & unloading process is.

People don’t upgrade to first class for the same reason they won’t pay a dime more than the cheapest seat available: they are only renting the seat, not buying it. Coach is nowhere near uncomfortable enough for even a several hour flight to change that.

The fact that some — well, OK, one — airline is making profits is not a feature. It’s the bug.

Be careful about your time horizon. I’ll bet that before 9/11, all the major airlines (absent USAir) were profitable enterprises.

9/11 acted to greatly accelerate internet driven changes (I’ll bet airline CEOs are still cursing Gore over that) that were going to happen anyway. It was a huge sea change, and it will take awhile before the effects finish shaking things up.

Which is kind of the way markets are supposed to work, making that not a bug, but a feature.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 18:19

Possibly it’s Internet driven. But I would say that at least 80% of the things that are worse (IMHO) with air travel now compared to 10 years ago can be traced directly to 9/11 and the TSA. Possibly 90%. That’s not a market failure.

Hey Skipper Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 21:26

Possibly it’s Internet driven.

Not possibly, certainly.

In March of 2000, when Northwest was making over $1B per year, management said they foresaw a long term decline in revenue per passenger mile, and had started to contain costs in anticipation.

In mid-1998, I had to attend a commanders’ conference in San Antonio. As it turns out, I had two choices. I could grab an airplane and fly there, or I could drive down the road to Eglin AFB and use their new multi-million dollar teleconference center. Since they had spent so much money on the thing, they needed to keep the utilization rate up, so they were only to happy to let me use it.

In 2003, I bought an iMac. At no additional cost, it came with software that, combined with a broad band connection, would host an eight way teleconference.

In 1998, only a large business could afford the infrastructure to make some business travel completely avoidable. By 2003, any stumbler could.

Business travel has plummeted since the late ‘90s, largely contributing to a 23% reduction in revenue per passenger mile.

In 1993, I was trying to find the cheapest way to fly from Montgomery, AL, to LA. After 30 minutes of painful research, I just gave up. I know I could have gotten a cheaper fare, but the cost difference made the exercise not worth the candle.

Now, anyone can go to Expedia et al, and get the answer in seconds. Airlines can no longer make any money on consumers’ unwillingness to do extensive research.

Those two things burned the airlines — 9/11 was merely an accelerant.

Yes, the TSA is a moronic mess. However, at nearly all airports, nearly all the time, the TSA delay is trivial. Reasonably often, I deadhead from Memphis to Indy. TSA at Memphis is so stupid I’m amazed it manages to draw breath. Even so, it adds at most 5 minutes to the whole exercise.

Compared to what — eight hours driving?

To me, that choice is a no brainer.

David Cohen Thursday, 14 August 2008 at 08:52

On my way back from LA on Tuesday, the automated check-in kiosk offered me the chance to upgrade to First Class for a relatively small charge (the adder was less than the cost of my discounted coach ticket). I assume the point was to get rid of excess capacity. I’ve never paid for First Class myself before, but the relatively small price and the fact that I was an hour away from being crammed into coach for four hours combined to get me to take the deal. That’s a smart business move.

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