Remember when airline travel was glamorous?

Yesterday as I scrolled through the CNN news feed, I read that airlines are losing money as gas prices drop.

I thought, “airlines are always losing money!” When gas prices soar, airlines lose money. When gas prices drop, they apparently still lose money. When they underpay their employees and those employees go on strike, airlines lose money. After 9/11, when consumers don’t purchase, when people don’t go home for Christmas, airlines lose money. Are airlines the victims of a massive scheme that makes them lose money no matter what?

Of course not. And by “airlines” in the phrase “airlines are losing money” we probably mean traditional airlines like US Airways, Delta, Northwest, etc. Because at least in the past few years, smaller, less traditional airlines like Southwest and JetBlue have been doing just fine–in spite of oil prices rising (or falling), in spite of labor crises on other airlines, in spite of decreasing numbers of people flying. (It seems these non-traditional regional airlines are now losing money too, but not to the same degree as the larger airlines.)

I think my experience flying to L.A. today should give some insight into why airlines are losing money. I haven’t flown since 2005 because I hate flying, and if there was any way to drive to L.A. in a reasonable amount of time, I would. I hate flying for many reasons. First, I hate the physical feeling of being in the air when there’s turbulence. Second, I hate, and I mean I really really hate, security. Third, flying is too expensive and it always more expensive than you expect it to be. Flying today has reminded me of all these reasons that I try to avoid flying as much as possible, and thus why the airlines are losing money on me.

I’m not going to argue about the physical feeling of being in the air part. People either like flying or they don’t. It’s not a rational thing you can argue with. Believe me–my mom hates flying even more than I do, and I’ve tried arguing with her. At a certain point you can’t, and shouldn’t, argue with someone else’s personal experience of the world, especially when that experience entails a basic emotion like fear or pleasure.

As for security, I hate it. Herded through slow lines like cattle, we are inspected like criminals for crimes less than 1/10 of 1% of us would ever dream of, much less execute. I’m sure there are plenty of ways for terrorists to terrorize us when/if they choose to, with or without the help of an aircraft, and I personally don’t think that putting the rest of us through the insane security measures (take off your shoes! your hat! your gloves, your scarf, your coat, your belt! take off your shirt!) has anything to do with terrorism. It’s just a huge inconvenience meant to inspire fear. I don’t think it really even inspires fear for the average traveler, just dread of the inhumane inconvenience.

As for expense, “normal” airlines (not JetBlue or Southwest) now charge for everything. There’s no such thing as a free meal anymore, but you can buy a “snack” for $5. The most ludicrous thing I encountered today was that there’s a $15 baggage charge per bag you check. I understand charging a nominal fee when people are carrying multiple very heavy bags that make the plane heavier than anticipated, but $15 per bag per passenger? And so far, none of the airports I’ve been in have free wireless. I suspect this is a decision made on a terminal-by-terminal basis, because the only network I can get in Northwest terminals is Boingo. All in all, a reasonably priced flight can get pretty expensive with all those add-ons.

Ok, so you’re herded like cattle, treated like criminals, and then made into walking cash machines. Obviously, this is no way to treat human beings. No matter people don’t want to fly.

Remember when flying was glamorous? I do, but only barely. When I was little my mom took me to New York City to visit my aunt. I remember a disgusting but extant plane meal and looking out the window. I remember the stewardess in her blue suit. The idea of glamorous stewardesses, full meals and flying as a “special treat” held when I went to China as a teenager. We were supplied with overnight cases and Chinese sweets, full hot meals and an endless supply of drinks, and movies–all included in the price of the flight. The other teenagers I flew with and I gathered in the same seating section, sitting on each other’s laps and the arms of chairs and talking. It was a completely different world. Flying was fun. No one was paranoid or trying to gut me for my last dime.

You can still catch a glimpse of what it’s like to fly in a pleasant environment if you can hold your temper past security and get on a Southwest or JetBlue flight. These two airlines have different approaches, but they’ve modernized past the other airlines, which are stuck in a sort of post-glory-days bitter desperateness. Southwest is basically a bus that flies, and that dash of realism in the face of airlines that pretend to be glam but are not, is refreshing. JetBlue is my personal favorite airline. All the seats are big, comfy leather first-class seats. Not only are snacks free, but there’s a variety of healthy snacks to choose from. There’s a t.v. on the back of every seat. Flying with JetBlue is like sitting in your living room, except the snacks are better, the chair is nicer, and the snacks are tastier. It takes your mind off all the other things that make flying suck, like the violence of going through security and those pesky turbulence bumps.

Maybe it’s not that I want the glamor of airline travel back, since the vestiges of those days is what’s now present in airlines like Northwest. Rather, I want the respect for the traveler to come back. JetBlue has the right idea–make people comfortable, give them a little something better than what they usually experience, and help them forget about the hardships of travel.

But in the long run, I think there must be a better solution for airlines. They’ve been losing money for so long. The most obvious solution, perhaps, is to switch to another form of fuel. This would prevent profits from depending so much on the rollercoaster oil market, but it would also mean that when someone flew a plane into a building, it wouldn’t necessarily blow up. Another solution would be to have fewer airlines running fewer flights or for airlines to work together consolidate passengers to fill flights. I would say, “I’m sure airline execs have thought of these things–how to treat customers, how to adjust to rising fuel costs, how to minimize expenses” but I’m really not sure they have, since I haven’t heard about airlines making money for years.

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5 Responses to Remember when airline travel was glamorous?

  1. Matt says:

    I have to admit, I’m kind of a “teacher’s pet” when it comes to security–I’m always eager to please, and I’ve always been fond of situations that involve a rapid series of small, specific tasks. Plus, being a clean-shaven white guy, I never get hassled. Also, I’ve noticed that it makes a difference what city you’re in–in New York, the security people are predictably rude and stonefaced, whereas in Indy they smile and might even engage in cordial small talk (they deal with way shorter lines there though). But ideally I’d like it if every plane were replaced with a train. Whenever I fly it feels like my eardrums are going to explode. Which is not a nice feeling.

  2. Gelsinger says:

    Actually, smaller airlines like JBLU and LUV are losing money too.

    Basically, they got killed by higher fuel prices because only LUV had hedged appropriately by buying futures for oil (so that yes they pay more for fuel, but their bets on higher fuel prices also pay off)

    Once oil went way up everybody with wings was like Oh No! We need to hedge! So they all started buying futures like crazy and over-hedged.

    But now oil’s plummetted and those futures contracts are losses that outweigh their savings on fuel.

    Basically, the problem is that airlines are terribly dependent upon things like oil over which they have no control and which are very volatile to boot.

    Luckily, jet pack technology is “taking off”

  3. B says:

    Gelsinger’s got it right. We used to have big “town hall” style meetings about this when I worked at Northwest. The airlines are screwed no matter what because they don’t think far enough in advance.

    Really, I think that’s the only time you’re going to find a “glamorous” flight experience- you flash your badge, you get through security, you get bumped to first class, you fly all over the country for free, you fly to and from Europe for 80 bucks, etc. etc. That’s pretty frikkin’ glam, and it’s the closest you’ll come without spending a thousand bucks on a refundable ticket. :) I don’t recommend working for an airline to ANYONE, tho.

    I wish you all the best for your trip, Jessica! Have fun!! :)

  4. yesisaidyesiwillyes says:

    You’ve hit several nails square on the head here, Jessica.

    I hope the Valencia program has many sublime moments so that you can wash the travel part right outta yr hair, yr brains, and yr bones.

  5. kevin says:

    korean air has the best uniforms i have ever seen. all the flight attendants have these bows around their neck, that even over the course of 13 hours, don’t change position. and the food, endless drinks, movies thing was still in play. basically, i think international flying is the only ‘okay, you *are* a human’ flying left.

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