Friday, June 13, 2008

Flying Has Gotten Really Bad

US air travel says a lot about people and organizations, some of it not so nice.

The conditions on most airlines approach that a cattle car filled with refugees fleeing for their lives. While on the plane we are expected to stay almost completely motionless and quiet for the duration of the flight. Our bodies are built for motion. Even while sleeping, people constantly change position. On an airplane this is impossible. The conditions are so unnatural that people actually die from the experience due to deep vein thrombosis. The airline rules enforce this motionlessness with ruthless efficiency. The aisles are narrow, the galley off limits, and a cart is pushed back and forth to both block and clear the aisles. The seat positions limit human interaction. In the unlikely event that you converse with another passenger you are likely to end up with a neck ache from the strain of trying to actually see them. Conversation is unlikely partly because the chance of two strangers having both the same need for interaction and the same interests is small. Contact is made even less likely by the stress induced by the experience. I say this as someone who likes the high vantage point that air travel provides.

There are periodic instances of people snapping on planes. Sometimes they get drunk and assault another passenger, sometimes they just become delusional in one way or another. It is true that people fall apart in lots of ways and in lots of places, but I believe that being crammed on a contemporary airline approaches the limits of human endurance.

Of course each airline differs somewhat. Southwest has a single class of seats and somewhat more reliable pricing. United is perhaps the worst of the worst. Most airlines seem to be rushing toward the United end of the continuum so that end is discussed here.

The time on the plane is only one part of the dehumanizing experience. The whole system is inhuman. I mean literally inhuman. That is, there is very little true human contact involved. The basic corporate motivation is money and the current competitive environment largely removes all other motivations from both selling and buying decisions. Passengers are higher paying, but more inconvenient, cargo.

Buying the Ticket

It is a general truism that interaction with paid employees decreases over time. The cost efficiencies of automated systems move us in this direction. I find that a well designed automated system is more effective and more pleasant than trying to explain my intentions to a stranger I will never see again. However, the automated systems lead us to evaluate on a small number of criteria and these criteria generally reflect airline corporate needs. Most airline systems tell you about flight times, duration, stops, and (immediate) price. Consumers tend to fly on the cheapest flight. The flight is something to endure and surely the big contract or time with Grandma is worth a few hours of pain. Might as well save the money to use on something more worthwhile. Given these conditions, the airlines have competed almost exclusively on price. Occasionally one will try larger seats or better food, but those efforts do not seem to pay off enough to be sustained. The reservation systems turn these into intangibles that do not enter the flyer's decision making process.

I heard a prediction that in the future all prices will be instantaneous. The vending machine that gives you a soda for a quarter in the dead of winter will charge a buck fifty on a hot summer day. Airlines have been the vanguard of this for many years. They have been willing to invest in a wide variety of profit maximizing devices. I do not want to paint the airline companies as uncaring blood sucking vampires seeking the last drop of blood from their unfortunate victims. Wait, I do want to paint them that way. However, as with any good vampire story, you have to have some sympathy for vampire who may not have wanted to become what he did. Many airline companies have lost unimaginably vast sums of money for year after year. A few dollars more per customer may mean the difference between profitability and bankruptcy (which they regularly enter). Ok, enough sympathy, let's look at what they have done to us.

If you can manage it, it is an interesting experience to compare fares with the people around you. Because of the ways fares are managed and the multiple outlets for selling, everyone pays a different amount. The person sitting in the seat next to you, even if it is a middle seat, may have paid close to ten times more than you did (or vice versa). The same thing holds for all airline transactions. I was on a business trip with two colleagues when our plans changed and we had to rebook flights. The three of us had the class of tickets on the same planes. We sat across a table from each other and each called to make changes. I fared the worst (charged two hundred dollars), one person did not have to pay at all and the third, for unknown reasons, was given a credit of forty dollars.

Getting That Last Penny

The techniques to make sure the planes are more or less full, but that you pay more than you would like are interesting. Here is my naive and uniformed guess at some of the techniques. My information comes from lightly tracking the topic in my general reading and my direct observations.

The airlines would love to sell all their seats at the highest price, but a full seat (some money) is always better than an empty one. This is particularly true because many of the costs (fuel, labor for pilots/attendants...) are fixed. The best flight for the airline is a completely full flight. This is easiest to accomplish if you can sell more tickets than there are seats. A certain percentage of people will miss their flight. Those customers will likely lose the cost of the fare. If you have someone at the gate ready to sit down in the seat of a passenger who missed the flight, two people have paid for one seat. What could be better for the airline. If the airline overbooks too much, it risks losing the little goodwill that is left with the traveling public. Too little overbooking and there could be empty seats.

To get the most money from each person, the first goal of the airline is to split the herd. There are at least four types of passengers I have identified from the fare structure: fare indifferent passengers, forced passengers, flexible passengers, whim passengers.

The first class of passengers are the first class passengers. These are people less constrained by money. They are willing to pay high prices for the added comfort of first class. First class passengers pay dearly for their comfort. Of course, the worse the conditions behind the flimsy first class curtain, the better the first class seats look. Sometimes there are not enough people willing to pay the high fare. If the rest of the plane is full, a desperate passenger may be forced to pay a higher fare "economy sitting in first class". This is usually less than full first class, but much more than any other seat on the plane. If no one can be forced into a higher fare, the first class seat can be bought by frequent flyer miles. This is a zero cost way for airlines to reduce their frequent flyer miles debt load.

Forced passengers are those whose travel plans are completely determined by outside forces. Those who must travel on a fixed schedule (generally business travelers) are forced to pay more. Common tricks to identify these travelers include: unwillingness to stay over a weekend, short notice for travel, a desire to keep an option open for last minute changes, and a desire for short travel times. Once identified, the airlines charge these passengers a higher rate.

Because the people who can be forced to pay more are identified by certain characteristics, the people who get lower prices are those that don't share those traits. These are the flexible passengers. Because of the way forced passengers are identified, flexible travelers flights will generally be longer and less direct. They will be staying over a weekend and, with some notable exceptions. Their fares are also non-refundable with a charge for changes (even to a "cheaper" flight). Earlier booking is a double edged sword for the airlines. On one hand, they are assured a fare. On the other hand, that fare is less than they might get if they waited for a more desperate person. Some of this can be handled by overbooking, but not enough. So, the airlines play intricate games with the prices that take into account the history of the flight and the actual booking numbers every point in time.

If a plane is truly under-booked, the airline may sell seats through discount sites on the internet, but that is a last resort. To discourage use of these services, they must be somewhat unreliable. That is, you cannot be sure whether you will be able to make it to Mabel's wedding on Sunday. These tickets are sold to whim passengers. A typical whim passenger is someone who has a lover in another city and would like, if it is cheap and easy, to take a last minute flight for the weekend.

Getting to the Plane

Everyone who travels frequently has stories about how late they were and still got the plane. Many of us have missed a flight or two. I have known people who left a rental car illegally parked in the departure zone. I have left a car with the keys under the mat in close parking and called the rental company to pick it up. For business travelers someone else is usually picking up the tab, so we are a little more cavalier than personal travelers. My ideal for the airport is to walk up to the gate exactly when my row is being called for boarding.

Reliable time planning is impossible because of several choke points in the process. The lack of reliability is why you are asked to be at the airport a couple of hours before boarding. That extra time for uncertainty reduces the number of trips for which it is worthwhile to travel by air. For me, the crossover is about 450 miles. For any trip less than 450 miles, it is just as fast and usually cheaper to rent a car and drive. Driving has other drawbacks (I hate to drive, more susceptible to weather problems...) so sometimes I fly anyway, but that crossover point is a longer trip than you might guess. The crossover point is different for everyone, mine is increased by the fact that I have an hour drive to the airport.

The main choke point in the process are checking bags and security. At any given airport you may know the average wait, but the times are extremely variable and you may be caught in a long line on any given trip.


Let's also get this out of the way at the beginning. Airport security is a huge joke. Unfortunately, the traveling public is the butt of the joke. Airport security costs vast amounts of money and disrupts the travel of every single passenger to protect against attacks that are both unlikely and stupid.

Here is an uncomfortable fact. Planes crash. Not very many of them and not very often, but they crash. In this inherently risky business of flying, your biggest worry is not terrorists. Less than 10% of all air fatalities have resulted from sabotage (,

Governments conceal many of their security operations so we will never hear about them. On the other hand "Terrorist Caught with Bomb at Airport" makes an irresistible headline. What better way to build support for the current airport security efforts. I have been unable to find a single instance where airport security has detected and stopped a terrorist attack from occurring. I have found numerous cases where governments have stopped attacks in the planning stages, but none where airport security has done so.

Here is a simple example of misplaced security. I always carry a pocket knife (swiss army tinker). I use it every day. Every few months I either have to mail it back to myself from the airport (if I have time) or throw it away (if I do not have time). No airliner can be hijacked with a box cutter, or a knife, or any other sharp object.. It has not been possible to hijack a plane this way for years. There are two reasons for this. Before the September 11th attacks, the best way for a passenger to survive a hijacking was to cooperate with the hijackers. After September 11th, the best way for a passenger to survive was to actively eliminate the threat. We have seen this numerous times in the past few years. When a passenger on a flight is perceived as a threat, the other passengers attack him and eliminate the threat. You and your fellow passengers are the first line of defense. In the unlikely event that someone with a knife starts killing passengers, the plane will not go down. The doors to the cockpit are reinforced and no matter what happens in the passenger cabin, the pilots will not open the door.

Reinforcing cockpit doors and educating pilots never to open them are probably the most effective defenses against a September 11 style attack. If hijackers cannot get control of the plane, they cannot use it as a missile. If planes cannot be used as missiles, their value as a terrorist target is greatly reduced. The most someone bent on destruction can hope for is a crashed plane with a few hundred dead. There are other, more attractive targets.

We are mostly kept safe by the fact that there is a vanishingly small number of people who wish to crash a plane and governments are trying to find monitor those people. Of course the best way for governments to monitor these folks is for ordinary citizens to be aware of their neighbors and be willing to report people who seem to be threatening. This requires the trust and goodwill of the people toward their government. Goodwill is hard to feel at the end of airport screening.

Security at airports will never be relaxed no matter how useless and illogical it is. No one wants to be blamed for something going wrong. Governments also have a vested interest in fostering a certain amount of fear. Fear of outsiders unites us behind the government and makes us willing to follow instructions, even when they go against our self interest.

Checking In and Luggage

Checking in used to serve the function of telling the airline that you were at the airport and ready to catch the plane. Now that you can do it online, check in serves to get you through airport security. A primary goal of airline management is to reduce labor costs. The ideal for management is for no human interaction with airline personnel at all. For passengers without luggage, they have almost accomplished this. You buy your ticket from an online system. Check in is either on line or, if you don't have baggage, an electronic kiosk. To board the plane, you hand your boarding pass to the only human you will interact with before boarding the plane.

Luggage is inconvenient for airlines in a couple of ways. First, human labor is needed to get it on to and off of the correct plane. Second, it takes up room in what could be a cargo hold. A natural discouragement is knowing that airlines are neither careful nor reliable with luggage. Airlines have recently found some excellent (from their point of view) workarounds to the luggage problem. This first is to charge for checked bags. This makes your luggage ordinary paid cargo. It also increases the ticket price in a way that does not show up when you make your reservation. Businesses love the hidden fee. It allows them to compete on the basis of a deceptively low price. See The danger for the airlines is that people will try to carry on even more than they already do. For this, security takes the hit. At the same time the airlines announced luggage charges, the security folks said they had to limit the amount any single person can take through the line.

On the Plane

Most people on a plane are not in First Class. The airlines mantra is "pack em in". There was a time when you could put down your tray table, open a laptop and do some work. Those days are long past. The seats are so close that if the person in front of you reclines, you must have your laptop half closed. I have spent time typing reports without viewing the screen, my hands inside the half closed clamshell of the computer. There are a few seats with, very slightly, more legroom. The airlines are mandated to put these in so that you can reach the emergency exit in case of a crash. Many airlines charge more for these seats. They do not, however, charge less for the seats in front of the exits that cannot recline.

The closeness of the seats is one of the reasons movement is so difficult in planes. If someone by the window wants to get up, the passengers between him and the aisle must exit the cramped space to let him by. The aisle is just wide enough for a food cart. "Watch your elbows" is probably the flight attendants most common phrase. Once the passengers between the window seat and the aisle are up, they must march single file up the aisle so the window sitter can escape. There is not enough room for people to pass each other in the aisle so if the people in the aisle and center seats head the wrong way, it is a chinese puzzle to get everyone in place.

Inter-city busses have the reputation of being uncomfortable and dirty. Inhabited only be the undesirables who cannot afford another means of travel. I would say that airlines have become the inter-city busses of the sky, but I have never been in a bus that is as uncomfortable as a "modern" airline. Just as with busses, you can expect nothing from the company but a seat. For a long trip on either, everyone knows they must bring their own food and drink. The vestige of past food and drink service, the cart going up and down the aisle, serves almost no function but to keep the attendants busy with a moving battering ram to keep people out of the aisles.

I joke that if a completely safe anesthetic is created, the airlines will dose all the passengers and stack us like cord wood.

On the Other Side

I have no real complaints about traveling once I am out of the airport. Often when I get off the plane, there is no real public transportation. Car rental companies use new cars which are, on the whole, quite reliable. All the car rental companies I use have worked pretty hard to make the experience easy even as they have reduced the amount of human interaction needed. Sure, they try to gouge with insurance, gas, and upgrade charges. If you rent a few times, you get used to the three or four "no"s it takes to avoid these standard traps. In the cities where there is public transportation, it is usually pretty good. I expect some inconvenience when traveling to a city that is not my own. Pretty universally, people are helpful, and transportation systems work well.


Masasa said...

This is indeed how it seems: "Passengers are higher paying, but more inconvenient, cargo."

Do you have Jetblue out there? I agree with you that most airlines are going the way of United, but Jetblue either is not or, perhaps more accurately, is going in slower motion. I fly Jetblue whenever possible, and with the kids, so far, I have refused to fly anything else. All the seats are the same class, and I can usually manage to get into my seat without having a panic attack as I think about having to manage sitting still in the uncomfortably tight quarters. There is enough room in the Jetblue seats so that I can skim just above the surface of panic-attack-upon seating.

Remember all that debate about "fat passengers" and whether they should have to pay for two seats? I am starting to think that was a cover up/distraction started by the airline industry. The seats were shrinking for everybody, but at the time we were just starting to really FEEL it. Since we are all so worried about our waists, and yes, butts expanding, the airlines could almost make us think that although we are not the 300 pound passenger the media report was talking about, that maybe WE were still the problem. Now of course we can look back, and things like the laptop issue reinforce that in fact we were never the problem. But I can't think of a more brilliant strategy for the "blood suckers."

sf said...

I remember when I was a little kid, it was how the "upper crust" traveled, first class or no, because it was supposedly so luxurious for ALL! At least if you weren't in that third world air bus filled with goats, chickens, and barbeque pits.