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Fight or Flight

October 5, 2016

There are few things as widely loathed as flying.

Daily, social media chronicles an ever-increasing onslaught of complaints, rants and horror stories. Alas, these grievances are mostly justifiable.
It’s hard to believe that flying used to be a rather satisfactory event – if not downright enjoyable – even elegant!
Remember? At one time you could stroll through the airport, out the door, onto the tarmac, up the stairs and into the plane, just like Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”? 
Today, CEOs are intent on cutting everything travelers used to identify with comfort and decency. Food, bag handling, boarding in a reasonable manner – all once taken for granted, and now paid for or done without. 
Planes are now packed more than they’ve been since World War II, when they carried troops. On some airlines you can’t even get a cup of water for free , e.g. Aer Lingus.
So, flying is  getting bumpier. But so are many other things in life, the airline apologists like to tell us. Grocery items cost more and offer less. Cinemas hike ticket prices and make customers sit through endless pre-show commercials. And employers require more and more from workers, including longer hours and fewer benefits, yet give less in return.

So why should the airlines be any different? And, why do the irritations of airline travel give passengers such air rage? Why is it the airline experience that stirs us so deeply?

Let’s look at bus travel which has always been unpleasant, and people instinctively expect the worst. Hence, if a bus is NOT full of ex-cons, drunks or chickens, then it has exceeded expectations.
With the airlines, people have seen air travel look sexy, even fun, in movies and TV which makes the contrast so sharp against the cold reality.
You also remember when flying was a lot more relaxing, even if you’re not that old.
Some select passengers do still get the Don Draper experience that’s denied to everyone else: those in first class. And there’s the thing. In most areas of life, Americans still believe the fantasy that life is fair and everyone receives pretty much equal treatment. My car is stuck in traffic? So is his. 
Then we endure the walk of shame trudge past the landed gentry-like few who were allowed to board in a leisurely fashion, who didn’t have to fight for overhead space, and who are already sipping complimentary drinks while stretching out in massage-like chairs.

‘But flying has become so much cheaper!’ the airline apologists love to tell us. ‘Airfares are down 50% of what they were 30 years ago. W hy can’t you  appreciate that?’
Fun fact: The greatest number of passengers ever carried by a commercial airliner is 1,088 by an El Al Boeing 747 during Operation Solomon which involved the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia on 24 May 1991. This figure included two babies born on the flight. Seats were removed to accommodate the maximum number of passengers.
Please don’t believe this airfare spin. The facts are the exact opposite. 
Squeezing blood from a turnip
The real price of an airline ticket has soared since deregulation in the late 1970s and far exceeds the inflation rate of the last 40 years. 
All airfares used to  include plenty of services, were refundable, and included a far roomier seat. 
Last year US airlines raked in more than  $18 billion in junk fees – that used to be included in the price of a ticket: bag fees, early boarding fees, change fees, and so on.

Possibly, when travelers vent, they’re expressing frustration about spending a lot on a big-ticket item and still not being able to buy good treatment.

Columbia Law professor and New Yorker contributor Tim Wu points out that bad, no-frills service is the cornerstone of the airlines’ new paradigm. “Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid,” Wu writes. “That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as ‘calculated misery.’ Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.”
When FlyersRights rebukes this, the typical airline reply about deteriorating conditions in the back is: Then you should pay for it and sit up front! Which is a reminiscent of a ‘Let them eat cake’ response.
Bang up job, boys. But we can still taste that once-free water.
Until next week we remain,

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