December 28, 2014

"Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer."

A headline so good it may trigger your click-bait resistance, but the article (in The New Yorker) delivers.

60 comments:

rhhardin said...

Profit is also what the traveler gets for what he pays, or he wouldn't go.

That's the thing about voluntary transactions. Both sides come out ahead.

The trip is worth more to the traveller than what he pays for it.

Profit.

The price is worth more to the airline than what it costs it.

Profit.

The national standard of living rises by the total of those two.

Beware of economic articles by idiots.

Eric said...

The article does not deliver. It omits the possibility that passengers, by opting for lower fares, may be the cause of what the airlines are doing.

CStanley said...

For the same reason that politicians do not really want to alleviate the conditions that lead to poverty.

St. George said...

Meanwhile, Slate is emblazoned with the article

Frequent Criers

"Air travel is miserable. But passengers have only themselves to blame."

The gist seems to be we, the people, are bad because we don't want to pay exorbitant fees for what used to be average, typical service. "Jammed on board an ultra-low-cost aircraft with knees grinding against a seatback, you might not be inclined to agree. But then again, you bought the ticket, so that’s on you."

The author also quotes the excruciating always wrong Matt Yglesias as an expert...because he wrote about the same thing in Slate two years ago!

Gabriel said...

Cramming more seats into economy is less comfortable--I've never flown any other way--but it makes flying more affordable.

When I was growing up in the 80s middle-class families drove on vacations. Gas and hotels and vacation time were cheaper than a plane ticket.

I would rather be uncomfortable for a few hours--in the Continental US it can't be more than six--and be able to fly more often, then to have a more luxurious experience.

My vacation is not the ride on the plane, it's where I'm going. If it's business or an emergency I care even less about how comfortable it is.

Being in a car for six hours is no better.

It's the usual plaint of the elitist--this used to be better before everyone started doing it.

Bobber Fleck said...

The pendulum has swung about as far as it can. It will swing back.

Terry said...

I understand how greater consumer choice leads to greater economic efficiency. Why not take it a step further?
Given the same seat, a short person is getting more leg room than a tail person. Why not charge them more?
The free market is a solvent. It destroys things. It is interesting to see what capitaists want to apply the free market solvent to (wages for workers) and what they do not (market barriers).

Laslo Spatula said...

Most important things I want in airline service:

1. safe landing.

2. hot stewardesses.

Also: a row of cheerleaders in front of me would be a plus. I can practically already hear their thighs.

I am Laslo.

rhhardin said...

I haven't flown since 1985 or so so have missed out on the fun.

The only commutes I needed to make were between Ohio and NJ, which is an easy drive, and you can take your dog. Though Pennsylvania is an annoyingly long state every time.

rwnutjob said...

​Having flown since they stood outside with a fire extinguisher beside the DC-3's piston engines, I can attest to the degradation of the experience. I have long said: "You want a $99 ticket? This is what you get."

However, I never guessed that they were TRYING to make the experience worse in order to increase revenue with add-ons.

I have 600,000 unused airline miles. The last I used, I gave away to my sisters.

I can't imaging cramming my ass in one of those aluminum tubes for fun.

Meade said...

We'll always not have Paris.

MikeR said...

Gosh. Someone can put all these stupid airlines out of business by opening another airline, charging somewhat higher prices, without any of the extra charges. Or maybe Jet Blue was trying that and it didn't work well.
As for some of the other fees, Southwest is far better than the rest, two free bags and no trouble about rescheduling. My family only flies Southwest; it's just not worth it to us to deal with rescheduling on other airlines. For others it may be worth it; other airlines have lower fares for many destinations. Make your choice: that's how the free market works.
I didn't see any reason given to accept the author's claim that the airlines _want_ people to be uncomfortable to get them to pay the higher fees, and are colluding for that purpose. The simple explanation is that they want to get as many people as possible on their planes.
Of course, if they are shown to be colluding, anti-trust law is the appropriate remedy.

Unknown said...

---The free market is a solvent. It destroys things. ---

What a hard-core lefty thing to say!

You don’t even have a grasp of what a solvent is.

2. having the power of dissolving; causing solution.
noun

3. a substance that dissolves another to form a solution :
Water is a solvent for sugar.

Hint, when I drink a sugar water solution the sugar has not been 'destroyed'.

You are a perfectly ignorant spokesman for anti-capitalism.

Bruce Hayden said...

The Southwest model seems to still be working. You can pay for an earlier boarding pass, which means more seat selections, but otherwise, excluding the three exit rows, the seats are all the same.

A friend flies Delta a lot, but likes it because he gets to sit up front, because he flies a lot. One trip from Denver to Syracuse and back, and I will only fly Delta if I absolutely need to. United is no better, and for me, American is on the bottom. Luckily, I have no need to go anywhere American has a near monopoly.

Anglelyne said...

Gabriel: It's the usual plaint of the elitist--this used to be better before everyone started doing it.

"Elitists" fly business or first class and couldn't care less about the conditions in cattle class. Having an economic system so broadly successful and prosperous that the wrong sorts of people could afford not only to travel but to travel in some semblance of comfort and dignity? Now that's what would really frost an "elitists" ass.

Wilbur said...

If I need to make a non-emergency trip within a 12 hour drive, I'll go by car without hesitation.

Why? Because I measure a long-legged 6-2. I simply don't fit into an economy seat. Driving is a pleasure compared to the hell of flying.

Terry said...

Unknown, your remark is so ignorant that there is but one way respond to it: pffft!

Anglelyne said...

MikeR: Gosh. Someone can put all these stupid airlines out of business by opening another airline, charging somewhat higher prices, without any of the extra charges. Or maybe Jet Blue was trying that and it didn't work well.

The point is that it did work well (was profitable), just not well enough - i.e., didn't deliver constant increase in shareholder value. The reaction to this is sometimes such that the "magic of the market", which usually delivers improvements in past living conditions and more choice for ordinary people, ends up leaving them with shittier conditions and reduced choice (at not necessarily lower cost). I would call such a state of affairs a market failure, even though in many of these instances I am both a shareholder and a customer. Unlike our resident reds, I have no fond hope that there's a non-market fix for this state of affairs. Unlike our resident libertarian panglosses, I'm not going to eat shit with a smile and insist that it's ice cream.

Robert Cook said...

Another indictment of Wall Street.

"I would rather be uncomfortable for a few hours--in the Continental US it can't be more than six--and be able to fly more often, then to have a more luxurious experience."

A ridiculous comment; a service provider should provide an experience that is at the least comfortable--basic comfort is not "luxury"--and any customer who accepts "up to six hours" of discomfort without complaint as the cost of an affordable ticket is someone who is happy to be screwed by someone he's giving his money to.

EDH said...

"If they suffer, they're gonna make you suffer."

Maybe we can get those round-trip, first-class tickets to the resurrection?

Michael said...

Robert Cook:

What a stupid comment. You are perfectly free to drive from NY to Seattle in the comfort of your own automobile. Or take a roomy bus with wi-fi! Or the train. Also, if you would like, you can pay extra for first class.

Not sure if you have ever flown on one of the airplanes offered by the peoples' paradises of Cuba or Russia or China before the thaw. If you haven't you lack perspective not to mention knowledge.

It is cheaper today to fly from most markets than it was in the 1970s. In uninflated or undiscounted dollars.

Today's airline seats are perfectly normal for people that are not obese. But not to worry about the comfort of the modern traveler because they show up in track suits and pajamas and they bring their own pillows.

The article at hand could have focused on the opportunity some airline will have to reverse the fee proposition. Checked luggage should be free. Carry-on luggage should be charged. Thus, if you want to carry on a purse and a roll-aboard then you should pay fifty bucks. If a purse, a roll-aboard and a briefcase then seventy five dollars. Three items max. I can assure you that boarding airplanes would take half the time because the cheap ass flyers would check their wallets if it was going to cost them twenty five dollars.

dreams said...

Its all about the bottom line, they will do what they can as long as the cost benefit ratio is in their favor.

I flew Southwest in Oct. (no baggage fee) to visit my brother in phoenix, the first time I've flown since Dec. 1966. The four hour flight was too much for me, I'll drive out there the next visit.

Edmund said...

@Michael Today's airline seats are perfectly normal for people that are not obese.

Actually, they aren't. The seat width is based on 1950s data for men's waist. Depending on the airline, it's set at the 90% or 95% width. So 5 to 10% of men in 1950 would find the seat too tight. But there is a kicker. The widest part of the body is at your shoulder, not your hips. Which is why you have to hunch your shoulders in, even if the seat is big enough at the hips. There is an ADA class action lawsuit in there somewhere.....

Michael said...

Edmund:
"There is an ADA class action lawsuit in there somewhere....."

Why would that be?

Robert Cook said...

"Today's airline seats are perfectly normal for people that are not obese."

No, they are not.

I am not obese, not even close, and today's coach airline seats are too narrow for me, yet I tolerate them for the brief flights (average two hours) I typically take once or so a year. There is no leg room to speak of, either. Passengers are squeezed front to back and side to side. I have no idea how anyone who is noticeably heavy can fit into these seats.

Unknown said...

---Unknown, your remark is so ignorant that there is but one way respond to it: pffft!---


You respond with a contentless, emotional bleat. As I said you are the perfect spokesman for anti-capitalism and the left.

Unknown said...

-- "up to six hours" of discomfort without complaint as the cost of an affordable ticket is someone who is happy to be screwed by someone he's giving his money to.---


is someone who has rationally weighed the costs and benefits of airline travel.

Cost - Some transitory discomfort.

--Having to fly with whiny liberals.

Benefit -- fares that are affordable to a very large portion of our fellow citizens.

--Getting to your destination in hours not days and having the enjoyment of the real goal of your travel.

You rich, whining liberal elites, start your own exclusive comfy airline!

Michael said...

Robert Cook
"I have no idea how anyone who is noticeably heavy can fit into these seats."

I don't either but they do. Loads and loads and loads of fatsos on every plane. Sit in an airport and watch. You will be amazed at the lard headed for those tiny seats.

Jupiter said...

So, Althouse -- Is this why you do your traveling in a car?

LilyBart said...

Someone can put all these stupid airlines out of business by opening another airline, charging somewhat higher prices, without any of the extra charges.

Won't work, and here's why- When someone books a flight, they search the flight options for the CHEAPEST flights. Some are willing to pay a little more for a convenient flight time. Much fewer will pay a little more for some leg room. But MOST are looking for cheapest fare from point A to point B (unless your company is paying). Almost no one wants to pay $50-$75 more for comfort and good food. They complain (loudly) about the space and food, but they won't PAY for it.

And for the most competitive routes, there is little room to raise fares. So they (like Banks BTW), keep fares low and look to make their money via fees.

YOU ARE GETTING WHAT YOU ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR. You voted with your wallet.

This goes for clothes too - People complain about lack of quality, then complain that clothes cost too much.

Generally, price / quality are tradeoffs.

RigelDog said...

I'd like to know more about the economics of comfort. Why isn't it profitable enough for an airline to offer me a roomier seat/leg room for an upcharge? I'd gladly pay another hundred dollars or so per ticket. We went to Disney from Penna ten years ago and I was acutely miserable every moment in the plane; the seats were not just narrow but the seat in front was right in my face. Add in the restrictions on moving about the cabin, and sitting on the runway for an hour before take-off, and I felt as though I had paid them to torture me.

Jupiter said...

LilyBart said...

"YOU ARE GETTING WHAT YOU ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR. You voted with your wallet.

This goes for clothes too - People complain about lack of quality, then complain that clothes cost too much."

There is some truth to this, but your reference to clothing also brings up a crucial difference; different people wear different clothes, but we all fly on the same planes.

I am tempted to think that this is a market failure, but perhaps not. There are people who pay more for convenient and comfortable air travel, and they pay a *lot* more, by chartering or owning their own aircraft.

The Godfather said...

In the 70's I flew on business, and even coach was comfortable -- in part because there was almost never anyone in the middle seat, which meant you had about the same room as the first class passengers. Fares were high, but someone else was paying, so who cared?

But the consequence was that regular folks, who had to pay for their own tickets usually could 't afford to fly. They took the bus. You really ought to compare today's air travel to yesterday's bus travel. Both uncomfortable, but one much faster.

Michael K said...

"The Southwest model seems to still be working."

Good to know. I haven't flown anywhere for a couple of years and that was Southwest.

When I was first flying across the country it was 1956 and the planes had three classes. First, coach and tourist. The tourist class got no meal but could buy a box lunch before boarding.

One time I was on a DC-7 going from LA to Chicago when we had to divert around thunderstorms in the direct path. We flew a circular course over Texas and I watched 7 foot flames come out of the exhaust of those DC 7 engines for the thirteen hours of the flight.

Anything less than 8 hours and I'm driving. My son and I are going to Tucson next month sometime and we will fly SW. Picking up my daughter's stuff and driving a truck back to Cal. Better than driving both ways in two days.

cognito said...

So, it turns out that what the airlines want is to make a profit - not single-mindedly to make their customers suffer.

Typical Althouse - spin and jive, shuck and shuffle, massive "likes" of articles that are inherently dishonest.

Babaluigi said...

I have been flying since 1962, and the experience has obviously "evolved". I am short and not overweight, so seat size has never bothered me, and (admittedly, I only fly a couple times a year) I have never sat next to a large person who spilled over onto "my side"...so I guess I am pretty lucky there...

For me, the real misery is the crap we have to put up with from the TSA since 9/11. I used to get wanded all of the time at the beginning (the underwires), but that doesn't happen any more. I have pretty much developed a "uniform" for flying: close-fitting clothes which at a glance show I am not concealing anything, and have a no-nonsense attitude. My "flying shoes" have steel shanks and I take them off even when going through precheck. I hate the "hands in the air" machine and figure it is shortening everyone's lives--screeners included, so there.

... But I am probably going to be going to jail or something if they ever decide to touch me. I have decided that if they decide to do that, I will lift up my shirt over my bra and drop my pants, so it will be obvious I am not hiding anything. What the heck, how is my underwear any different from a bathing suit? I will not be assaulted because the government refuses to profile and properly deal with the real troublemakers...

...and as to paying for carry-ons? I pack very efficiently and recently I fit a two-outfits-a-day-for-a-week in one bag. It is bad enough that our liquid personal items are limited because of the above-mentioned government failures. Never pack anything in checked baggage that you absolutely cannot live without. Your belongings may be stolen or lost. I have no faith or trust in the baggage handling portion of the airlines, and scoff at those who insist everyone should have to check their baggage. The airlines could use different and much more efficient boarding procedures in order to speed things up.

Jupiter said...

The Godfather said...
"In the 70's I flew on business, and even coach was comfortable -- in part because there was almost never anyone in the middle seat, which meant you had about the same room as the first class passengers."

I have noticed this as well. It used to be quite common to have lots of empty seats, which allowed people to spread out. Of course, an empty seat is a huge loss for the airline. I am not sure how they manage it, but the airlines have basically eliminated the empty seat.

This is a remarkable achievement. Economists regard airline seats as a perishable good. Typically, perishable goods decline precipitously in price as their sell-by date approaches. But optimal pricing still means that a lot of fruit gets tossed. Selling every seat, without giving any away, is rather as if a supermarket could sell every single avocado the trucks deliver for full price.

Terry said...

"You respond with a contentless, emotional bleat. As I said you are the perfect spokesman for anti-capitalism and the left."
"pfffft' is not an emotional bleat. It is an insult. Perhaps you could look its meaning up in your dictionary?
Good day, sir.

Gabriel said...

@Jupiter Selling every seat, without giving any away, is rather as if a supermarket could sell every single avocado the trucks deliver for full price.

If customers preordered avocados like they did airline tickets, they could.

There's 100 - 200 people on a typical flight. That means there is very little variane on the number of people who don't show up, so you overbook, and once in a while you have to find a seat on another flight for someone or have an empty seat, but the probability of that happening on a given flight is low.

Robert Cook said...

"I am not sure how they manage it, but the airlines have basically eliminated the empty seat."

They do what hotels do, (speaking as one who worked in a hotel for 8 years): they oversell their flights on purpose, if they can, (as hotels oversell their available rooms on purpose, if they can).

From experience, the respective service providers, (i.e., hotels or airlines), have a good sense for how many people will cancel at the last minute or who will just not show up. They will oversell (if there is sufficient demand) by about the number of rooms/seats they anticipate will open up due to cancellations/no-shows, and hope to achieve 100% sell-out without having to tell arriving customers with reservations they will have to take a later flight or be sent to another hotel.

An unsold room or seat is a loss of income for that night or that flight that can never be recovered, whereas having to make other accomodations for those who are left high and dry is relatively infrequent enough relative to other factors that it is more profitable than underselling or selling only the exact number of rooms/seats still available and ending up with empty rooms/seats when customers cancel.

Michael said...

Jupiter

Airline pricing works like medical pricing. You need a heart transplant? No, problem. You can have one next September for $5,000.

Oh, you need it tomorrow? That will be $100,000

Jupiter said...

Robert Cook and Gabriel,

Interesting observations.

Airlines are in a position to control their inventory, by changing their schedules. Hotels, on the other hand, have a fixed set of rooms, with fairly minor additional costs when those rooms are occupied. But both have large capital investments to amortize. Supermarkets, meanwhile, have very little invested in perishables, and often regard them as "loss leaders", paid for by the sale of other products.

Still, I suspect that the chief factor hotels and airlines have in common is that much travel is paid for by businesses, and they are not as price sensitive as individuals.

Rob Parrish said...

Disequilibrium exists in the US domestic air transport market due to the lack of a market in airport gates. The result is that it's difficult for new entrants to emerge, competitive pressures to take hold, and various service improvements to be forthcoming.

Privatizing airports would work, but only if done in toto. But since most of the hub airports are owned by municipalities, and are opportunities for various public and private types of rent seeking, don't expect any such changes.

Until we see innovation coming from alternative modes (air taxis, high speed travel tubes, space elevators), expect to be stuck with this lousy hub and spoke network and the resulting poor service.

As would be normal in most industries, the airline industry offers sub par service because of partial and poorly conceived government intervention in the market.

LilyBart said...

"In the 70's I flew on business, and even coach was comfortable "

That was before deregulation. Aireline fares are cheaper in absolute terms - it's never been cheaper to fly than it is now.

LilyBart said...

In the 70's I flew on business, and even coach was
comfortable


That was before deregulation. Airline fare were more expensive, even though fuel was quite a bit cheaper.

Flying is so much less expense today in real terms (look at cost versus the average salary). But it has come at the cost of comfort and, well, civilization.

jaed said...

I have no idea how anyone who is noticeably heavy can fit into these seats.

The procedure is that you buy two seats. Then either a) they put your second seat in a different row, or b) the flight attendant informs you that they are putting someone in the second seat, since the flight is overbooked and "after all, it's an empty seat!". Then your new seatmate elbows you throughout the flight, complains vocally, and otherwise makes his or her displeasure at having to sit next to an "inconsiderate fat spilling into my seat" known to all.

You may request a refund of the price of the commandeered second seat in six weeks.

LilyBart said...

different people wear different clothes, but we all fly on the same planes.

Probably less difference than you think (at least were women's clothes are concerned). Most women's clothing in the low to mid price range is cheap cr*p. To get really well made clothes, you have to go to the highest-end manufacturers and designers. After the last downturn, all my favorite mid-price brands lowered quality to keep the prices low, which is what the consumers wanted. Yes, they complain about the quality, but they won't buy at a higher price. J Crew, Ann Taylor, etc - are all now selling junk - cheap, fast fashion.

So-it IS really like the airlines - if you can pay top dollar, you can have what you want. Otherwise - you get the cr*p that comes with being cheap, with very few options in-between.

Thanks consumers.

hawkeyedjb said...

A lot of the misery can be attributed to the wave of airline mergers, not one of which should ever have been allowed. Eliminating competition means that misery becomes the standard level of service - where ya gonna go?

I flew to Europe last summer on US Airways, in a pretty comfortable coach seat. The return trip was on American, in a tiny seat with zero leg room - nine hours of torture. So what's the first thing American does to the US Airways planes after the merger? Yes, they are eliminating the legroom, because American and US Airways no longer have to compete.

Businesses would much rather eliminate competition than compete. Government could have stopped the merger wave, but with complete capture of the regulatory system, there was never a chance that would happen.

donald said...

I can fly round trip Atlanta to Seattle for $300.00.

In today money. I paid more in 1984.

Terry said...

Hawkeyedjb wrote:
"Businesses would much rather eliminate competition than compete."
Yes! Exactly! A business exists to buy things and resell them. The product doesn't matter. The things you buy are your costs and when resold they are your revenue. It's all buy low, sell high, and the way you do that is to buy in a commodity market (like unskilled labor) and sell in closed market (no one can sell McDonalds hamburgers but McDonalds). This is econ 101, it's not"liberal" or "conservative" economics. Adam Smith described the idea over two hundred years ago, for goodness sake.

Michael K said...

"I can fly round trip Atlanta to Seattle for $300.00.

In today money. I paid more in 1984."

Yes, in 1956, a tourist class ticket was $69. An ounce of gold was $35.

Unknown said...

----Perhaps you could look its meaning up in your dictionary?---


I’d already looked up 'solvent' to reinforce that you are a dimwit.


Ken B said...

At the supermarket I can buy a cooked chicken for about $4 a pound or a raw one for 79 cents a pound. They smear axle grease and birdshit on the raw chicken because they want to make cooking unpleasant.

Wu assumes that everyone wants what rich men like him want. Some people will look on three hours in a tight seat for $150 less as earning $50 an hour after tax.

Ken B said...

Two of Wu's claims amused me a lot.
Punished? How was JetBlu punished? Forced to drink castor oil?
And thi treat his customers well stuff?
"Well Ken, we could have reduced your fare by a hundred bucks, but we decided you wanted what Tim Wu wants, so we charge you for the luggage he might carry, and the brand of coffee he insists on. And we don't give you a choice. Just part of treating you well!"

Terry said...

You need to learn how to use language better, Unknown.
Example:
"However, wrong conditions, a non-matching solvent or high pressure can destroy the column. The first injection can come to be the last one if the wrong column"

You also might want to read up on that 'creative destruction' thing that free marketeers heap praise upon.

Terry said...

A better example: "The sugar cube is destroyed by dropping it into a solvent cup of hot tea."

Peter said...

Eric said, "The article does not deliver. It omits the possibility that passengers, by opting for lower fares, may be the cause of what the airlines are doing."

Indeed. If you want the comfort of a pre-deregulation-size seat and a meal, you can go business class. But few do, unless someone else is paying.

A domestic flight only lasts a few hours, and few want to pay $hundreds more for an incremental improvement in comfort for such a short time.

Although the "gotcha!" factor (You didn't know there's a fee for that carryon, and it's a lot bigger if you didn't select that option when you bought the ticket?) shouldn't be discounted.

One may as well complain about the junk fees on a cellphone/cable TV/motel bill.

Terry said...

Marx said that the capitalists' drive for ever greater profits would result in a crisis of capitalism.
The crisis of capitalism is therefore made manifest in both smaller airline seats and larger soft drink sizes at the Qwikee Mart.
So there are both good and bad things about the crisis of capitalism.

Peter said...

" Airlines lack a real incentive to fundamentally improve boarding for everyone—by, for example, investing in methods such as filling both ends of an airplane at once."

BUT the incentive for more efficient boarding is faster turnaround. Airliners are costly to buy and maintain, and they produce zero revenue when they're sitting on the ground.

OmegaPaladin said...

One of the reasons I like to travel by train is the comfort. Seriously, for as much crap as AmTrak gets, the seats in coach are great. Space on a train is much, much cheaper to move around. Also, you can get on a train less than 10 minutes before it leaves unless you have checked baggage - then it's 45 minutes. No TSA guys feeling up either.

By the way, the article is good, because you can't be an informed consumer without realizing how much you will screwed at the low price.